IS retakes parts of Albu Kamal in major attack
The Islamic State group seized parts of a key town on the Syrian-Iraqi border on Friday in a massive operation that further confirmed the militants remain a force on the ground.
IS used at least 10 suicide bombers in its offensive on Albu Kamal, which lies in the Euphrates Valley in eastern Syria, and swiftly took several neighborhoods, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The offensive is the latest in a string of IS attacks which confirm predictions that the group would continue to be a threat even after the collapse of its “caliphate” last year.
At least 25 government and allied fighters were killed in the operation, one of the militants’ largest this year, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based observatory.
“It’s the biggest attack on Albu Kamal since they lost it” in November 2017, he said.
“IS now controls several parts of the city. Fighting is ongoing in the center,” he said, adding that at least 18 militants, including the suicide attackers, were also killed.
There was no immediate comment from the government camp.
Albu Kamal lies in the Deir az-Zour province, about 440 kilometers east of Damascus.
The area was the heart of the once sprawling, self-styled “caliphate” IS proclaimed in 2014 and its recapture by pro-government forces last year was the final nail in the proto-state’s coffin.
According to the observatory, the extremist group that once ruled a self-proclaimed state roughly the size of Britain now holds less than 3 percent of Syrian territory.
It faces parallel operations from U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces west of the Euphrates and Russian-supported pro-government forces on the eastern bank.
IS had Sunday launched an operation on villages along the river that lie between Albu Kamal and
the provincial capital of the same name, Deir az-Zour. According to the observatory, at least 45 government and allied forces were killed in the offensive, mostly members of Shiite militia groups from Iraq and elsewhere. The activist group said at least 22 pro-government fighters were also killed in an IS attack in a desert area of the southern province of Swaida Thursday.
IS also launched an attack near the ancient city of Palmyra last month after some of its fighters were transferred out of their last Damascus bastion of Yarmouk.
Observers had warned that the group likely had sleeper cells across the country that could launch deadly attacks against government forces, mostly in remote areas.
Meanwhile, airstrikes thought to have been carried out by Russian jets on a rebel-held residential area Zardanah of Idlib province late Thursday killed 51 civilians, the observatory said Friday. Abdel-Rahman said the toll was rising because more bodies had been found under the rubble of houses destroyed in the airstrikes. Dozens were wounded, he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry dismissed the observatory’s reports of strikes on Zardanah as having “nothing to do with reality,” in a statement carried by Russia’s TASS news agency.
Zardanah is largely controlled by Islamist rebels, with a small presence of the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
An AFP correspondent at the scene saw volunteers with a crane still searching the rubble.
Half a dozen men in civilian clothes helped carry a person in a black body bag away from the site of the strikes, which pulverized several buildings.
Most of Idlib province is held by an array of Islamist and militant groups, with only parts controlled by the Russian-backed government.