BEIRUT: A surprise attack by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) on its Al-Qaeda rival the Nusra Front and its local Syria allies in a town on the Iraqi border Thursday killed dozens of fighters, activists said.
The clashes centered on Al-Bukamal, from which ISIS was expelled earlier this year. Observers said the Al-Qaeda splinter group was trying to regain a presence in the border town in a bid to bolster its supply lines stretching into Iraq, where it has been engaged in a campaign against Iraqi government forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime activist group, said at least 51 jihadist and Islamist fighters were killed, with 39 of the fatalities coming from the ranks of the Nusra Front and its allies.
ISIS fighters were seeking to link up with their comrades over the border in Iraq, said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
Local activists said the clashes continued throughout the day as the Nusra Front and its allies, the Qadisiya Brigade and the Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade, launched a counterattack.
Activists said the brother of ISIS’ “emir” for Al-Bukamal was killed in the clashes, which also prompted soldiers on the Iraqi side of the border to reinforce their positions.
The border crossing itself on Syria’s side remained in the hands of the mainstream rebel Free Syrian Army, according to a rebel chief and an AFP reporter on the Iraqi side who saw the FSA flag flying over it.
Iraqi troops put up blast walls and sand berms on their side of the crossing, the AFP correspondent reported.
Al-Bukamal has been under the control of fighters opposed to the Damascus regime since November 2012, but Nusra and its allies forced out ISIS fighters in heavy fighting earlier this year.
The Euphrates valley town had a prewar population of some 70,000.
Syrian government troops control just one official crossing on the Iraqi border – Tanf on the main highway to Baghdad, while a third crossing, Yaaroubieh in the northeast, is controlled by a Kurdish militia.
Activists also accused ISIS of being implicated in the execution of dozens of people discovered in a mass grave further west in Deir al-Zor province, near the Jafra oil field. The Observatory said three bodies had been found, amid reports of dozens of more corpses at the site.
Separately, the Nusra Front, the affiliate of Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for a twin car bombing in a pro-government area of the city of Homs that killed 25 Wednesday.
Nusra said twin bombing in the mainly Alawite district of Karm al-Loz in Homs had targeted militia loyal to President Bashar Assad’s regime.
In a statement posted on Twitter, the group said its militants had “penetrated one of the bastions of the Shabbiha and placed two car bombs that detonated a half hour apart during a Shabbiha gathering.”
On Thursday, rebels, including Nusra fighters, seized a building near a Military Intelligence headquarters in the Zahra district of the city of Aleppo, the Observatory said.In Homs, unidentified gunmen killed 14 people, including several children, in the Karm al-Zeitoun neighborhood.
The Observatory said the attack was carried out by pro-regime militia, but the state SANA news agency said an “armed terrorist group” was behind it.
Dozens of mortar bombs struck areas of Damascus and its suburbs, killing a policeman in the Christian-majority neighborhood of Qassaa and a young boy in the nearby suburb of Dweila, while 22 people were wounded in the Druze and Christian-majority suburb of Jaramana, the Observatory said.