IS ambush kills 21 Syrian regime fighters in Suweida
Islamic State group militants have killed 21 Syrian regime fighters in an ambush as the group faces separate assaults on its last desert strongholds, a war monitor said on Tuesday.
The attack late on Monday in Syria's southern province of Suweida came as US-backed forces advanced against the militants on the border with Iraq, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It also comes with President Bashar al-Assad's forces poised to launch an attack on the north-western province of Idlib, the last major region in Syria still controlled by rebels.
The IS ambush in Suweida's volcanic plateau of Tulul al-Safa sparked fighting that killed eight jihadis militants, the UK-based Observatory said.
State news agency SANA reported heavy clashes with IS in the area, which lies some 100 kilometres southeast of Damascus, adding that regime aircraft and artillery "targeted hideouts and positions" held by the group.
Regime forces have been fighting IS in Suweida since militants carried out a wave of attacks in the mainly Druze province on 25 July, killing 250 people according to the Observatory.
During their rampage, which targeted the provincial capital as well as rural areas, the jihadis also seized around 30 hostages, mostly women and their children.
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Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the hostages were believed to be held captive in the Tulul al-Safa area.
A source in Suweida told AFP that families had had no word of their kidnapped relatives in weeks.
IS has lost nearly all of the great swathes of territory straddling Iraq and Syria which it seized in 2014, but retains a presence in the vast Badiya desert that lies between Damascus and the Iraqi border, and holds a pocket in the Euphrates Valley in the east.
'Secret IS jails'
In that eastern pocket, a US-backed Kurdish-Arab alliance has for months been closing in on the town of Hajin east of the Euphrates River near the Iraqi border, and on Monday launched an assault to retake it.
In the early hours of Tuesday, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance advanced inside the town, the Observatory said, with backing from the US-led coalition fighting IS.
"They have seized control of the north-western part of Hajin" after residents fled, the monitor's chief Abdel Rahman said.
An SDF commander said the offensive on Hajin aimed to oust an estimated 3,000 IS militants - including a large portion of foreign fighters - from the town and surrounding areas.
"Most of the frontline commanders in this pocket are Iraqi," said Ahmad Abu Khawla, a commander with the Deir az-Zour Military Council, which is part of the SDF.
After humanitarian corridors were opened to allow residents to flee the IS-held area, most civilians remaining inside were "directly linked to the group - hostages or the families of IS fighters", he said.
Abu Khawla said IS had "secret jails where they hold civilians" captured in other areas of Syria.
Last year, IS lost its de-facto Syrian capital of Raqqa in the north of the country, and this spring militants bussed out of the southern suburbs of Damascus.
Since Monday, 27 IS militants and ten SDF fighters have been killed in the fighting for the Hajin pocket, the Observatory says.
More than 400,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests.
The brutal tactics pursued mainly by the regime, which have included the use of chemical weapons, sieges, mass executions and torture against civilians have led to war crimes investigations.