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Moscow (AFP) - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday hailed Syria's recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra, while stressing the role of Moscow's military in reversing the Islamic State tide.
The recapture of the ancient city represents a major victory over the Islamic State group, whose fighters had destroyed many monuments at the UNESCO world heritage site since they overran it in May last year.
Putin phoned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to personally congratulate him Sunday, the Kremlin said.
"Putin congratulated Assad on Syrian forces successfully completing a large-scale operation to liberate Palmyra with the support of Russian air and space forces," the Kremlin said in a statement.
Assad in turn "expressed gratitude for the effective help given by the Russian ... air forces to Syrian forces," the Kremlin said.
The Syrian leader told Putin "successes such as the liberation of Palmyra would be impossible without Russia's support," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told RIA Novosti state news agency.
Backed by a barrage of Russian air strikes, Syrian troops and allied militia launched a major offensive to retake the desert city earlier this month.
Moscow pledged its full support despite announcing on March 14 a surprise order from Putin to start withdrawing armed forces from Syria.
Russian state television on Sunday emphasised that its troops played a key role in the liberation of Palmyra.
"The support of Russian aviation helped to fully push out terrorists from ancient Palmyra," reported state-controlled Channel One television.
The Rossiya-1 channel has repeatedly aired spectacular aerial footage obtained from a drone it sent up over Palmyra, showing the colossal damage wreaked by IS to the historic monuments.
"What the rebel fighters did not have time to destroy while they controlled Palmyra, the Syrian army has saved, with support from the Russian air and space forces," reported Rossiya-1's war correspondent from Palmyra on Sunday.
- Mine-clearing operation -
Putin has ordered the defence ministry to provide "maximum assistance to the Syrian side in clearing mines in the liberated territories, taking into account their significance for world culture," the Kremlin said.
Putin told Assad he hoped "international experts will be able to start work on preserving and restoring the historic appearance of ancient Palmyra immediately after the mine-clearing operation finishes," the Kremlin said.
Putin earlier Sunday spoke by telephone with UNESCO chief Irina Bokova about the fate of Palmyra.
Putin and Bokova agreed that UNESCO, along with Russia and Syria, will soon be able to assess "the damage caused by terrorists to Palmyra and also develop a plan to restore what can still be restored," Peskov said.
Assad described the conflict in Syria, now in its sixth year as a "struggle for oil" to Putin, while adding: "There is a lot of oil everywhere but there is only one Palmyra", Peskov said.
The Syrian leader praised "Russia's political and diplomatic efforts" in resolving the conflict, the Kremlin said.
Russian armed forces will continue to help the Syrian regime to "fight terrorism and rid their land of extremist groups" Putin was quoted as saying by Peskov.
Both Assad and Putin expressed "hope for progress to be reached in dialogue between the Syrian sides and in promoting constitutional reforms," the Kremlin said.