Russia fires cruise missiles at IS stronghold in east Syria

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ABOARD THE ADMIRAL ESSEN — Russia’s military fired seven cruise missiles Thursday at Islamic State targets in the eastern Syrian province of Deir el-Zour as pro-government forces closed in on the militants holed up in the eponymous capital.

Journalists on a trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry watched from the deck of Russia’s Admiral Essen frigate as two submarines launched seven missiles from the Mediterranean Sea.

The Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air cover, last week broke a three-year siege around the city on the Euphrates river.

Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov told reporters later that intelligence showed the missiles hit the targets southeast of Deir el-Zour, destroying a command center, a communications hub, an ammunition depot and an unspecified number of IS fighters.

Russia has provided military backing for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces since 2015. It has repeatedly fired salvoes of Kalibr missiles into Syria, from both surface warships and submarines. It has also launched cruise missiles from strategic bombers.

An Associated Press reporter on the deck of the Admiral Essen frigate saw three missiles and later four more flying into the air, leaving trails of smoke. Two submarines emerged and were visible on the horizon shortly after.

Backed by an intense aerial campaign, Syrian and allied forces pushed their way toward the city last week, breaking a nearly three-year siege on its troops on the western edge of Deir el-Zour. It was a major symbolic victory for the pro-government forces. Since then, they have been battling remnants of the militants inside the city, seizing more than 60 percent of it. On Thursday, the pro-government forces were closing in at the extremists from three sides along the river, pounding al-Bogheliyah neighborhood on the northwestern edge of the city.

The militants are currently encircled by Syrian troops from three sides, with their backs to the Euphrates River. However, they still control rural areas outside the city and the border with Iraq.

As IS reels from significant losses in Syria and Iraq, there is a race for control of the border with Iraq, currently still in the militants’ hands. U.S.-backed Syrian forces are meanwhile advancing in the surrounding province from the east and north, on the other side of the river.

Bassem Aziz, a spokesman for the U.S-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, said his troops have taken control of an industrial area on…

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