BEIRUT: Militants from ISIS were on the retreat in Deir al-Zor province Friday after staging a surprise attack on a border town with Iraq the day before, activists said.
The death toll from the fighting between Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), an Al-Qaeda splinter organization, and its rival the Nusra Front along with local allies rose to 68, with some shot after being captured alive, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime activist group, said battles raged for a second day in the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zor.
The Observatory said the fighting concentrated in the village of Haseen after members of the Al-Qaeda breakaway group known as ISIS were forced out of the nearby town of Al-Bukamal, on the Iraqi border.
Rebels from ISIS and fighters of the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and other Islamic groups have been fighting each other in the province for weeks over territory previously captured from President Bashar Assad’s forces, including oil fields.
The Observatory said 68 fighters were killed in fighting around Al-Bukamal Thursday, when 365 people were killed in violence and clashes throughout the country. ISIS briefly captured the town, previously controlled by Nusra, for several hours.
An activist from Deir al-Zor who is currently in Turkey told the Associated Press that Nusra Front fighters and their allies brought reinforcements into Al-Bukamal and forced out ISIS gunmen after midnight Friday following hours of intense fighting that killed more than 50 people.
The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals against his relatives in the province, said ISIS took its rivals by surprise when its members stormed Al-Bukamal at dawn Thursday and marched through the city.
The Observatory said some of the 68 killed were summarily executed by ISIS militants.
An amateur video released by the Observatory showed several men, including some who were handcuffed, shot in the head in a square in Al-Bukamal. The narrator said the men were killed by ISIS members.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events. Other videos posted by activists purported to show the town’s government hospital, which they accused ISIS militants of looting and vandalizing before their withdrawal.
Some ISIS militants withdrew to the T2 oil site, 60 kilometers southwest of the town and where a Syria-Iraq pipeline runs, according to Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
The clashes have prompted soldiers on the Iraqi side of the border to reinforce their positions.
In the town of Quriyeh, in Deir al-Zor province, a local Islamist militia posted a video denying reports that its members had pledged loyalty to ISIS. A demonstration was also staged by local residents, who saluted the “martyrs” of Al-Bukamal and demanding that ISIS be expelled from the province.
Fierce fighting also raged around Aleppo, as the Observatory said 12 rebels and at least nine government soldiers and paramilitary allies were killed in the southwest suburb of Ramouseh. On the northern side of Aleppo, Islamist rebels pressed ahead with their drive to seize the Air Force intelligence headquarters, as government airstrikes targeted the area and the nearby Sheikh Najjar district.
Friday’s nationwide protests were staged in a number of provinces under the slogan “save Aleppo,” which has been subjected to a stepped-up campaign of aerial bombardment for several months, killing hundreds of people.
In the province of rural Damascus, the mountainous Qalamoun region bordering Lebanon saw fighting that pitted the Nusra Front and Islamist militias against regime troops and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Observatory said the rebels disabled a tank near the town of Seidnaya and fought skirmishes around the town of Rankous, which fell this week to regime forces.
The Observatory said two rebels were killed in the clashes, as regime airstrikes and artillery targeted several locations in Qalamoun, as well as the neighboring Wadi Barada region, also bordering Lebanon.
The Damascus suburb of Mliha saw heavy fighting, as the regime launched a surface-to-surface missile and pounded the town with airstrikes, the Observatory said. The fighting killed at least one rebel and a captain in the regime’s paramilitary force, the National Defense Army.
Residents of Mliha also staged a short demonstration, as videos posted of the event showed warplanes in the sky overhead.
Activists said that regime airstrikes and artillery led to the release of noxious gases in another Damascus suburb, Harasta, and a village in Hama province, Kafr Zeita.
Meanwhile, Syria’s state news agency SANA said the authorities freed an Austrian lawyer identified as Anton Sander, whom it said had be held by rebels in the city of Homs for the past four months.
SANA said Sander was in Homs visiting friends when he was taken by opposition fighters. It said he recently fled from his captors and was able to flee the neighborhood with the help of the authorities.
SANA published several photographs of Sander showing what it described as injuries from torture on his back.