BEIRUT: Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have taken control of a string of villages in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, an activist group said Wednesday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremist group had managed to seize the six villages north of the city of Aleppo, not far from the border with Turkey.
Fighting was ongoing for control of another village in the area, Arshaf, the group said.
The Observatory said the group took the areas "after fierce clashes with rebels and Islamist battalions that remained in the area after Nusra Front and other Islamist battalions withdrew at the end of July."
The Nusra Front, which is Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, joined moderate and Islamist rebel groups in a coalition that began fighting ISIS in January.
But in recent weeks, Nusra has also fought other rebel groups, further complicating the status of the armed opposition in Syria.
The Observatory said the ISIS capture of the villages was a strategic prize, because it would open the way for the group to attack the towns of Marea and Azaz.
Marea is a stronghold of the Islamic Front, a coalition of Islamist groups that is among those fighting against ISIS.
Azaz sits next to the border crossing with Turkey, which would be a valuable asset to ISIS as it seeks to expand its self-declared "caliphate" in the territory it holds in Syria and neighboring Iraq.
ISIS emerged from Al-Qaeda's one-time branch in Iraq and initially fought alongside Syria's opposition, including moderate rebels and Nusra fighters.
But its abuses against civilians and rival fighters, as well as its bid to dominate control of captured territory, sparked a backlash.
The group was pushed out of much of the territory it held in Aleppo province by the coalition of moderate and Islamist rebels that turned against it in January.
But it has been able to recapture some of that lost ground, and is advancing in Aleppo while consolidating its hold in its stronghold of Raqqa province and sweeping forward in Iraq.
The Observatory said its advances in Aleppo had been assisted by the decision of the Islamist Dawud Brigade to pledge allegiance to ISIS.
More than 170,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began there in March 2011.