Middle East

ISIS retreats from Deir al-Zor province

Syrians inspect the scene following a reported air strike attack by government forces on the Hanano district of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on February 10, 2014. (AFP PHOTO / AMC / KHALED KHATIB)

BEIRUT: An Al-Qaeda splinter group has withdrawn its forces from Syria’s oil-rich eastern province of Deir al-Zor, activists and rebels said Monday, after days of heavy fighting with rebel militias.

The rebel groups, including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate the Nusra Front, have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for control of towns and oilfields Deir al-Zor.

“The ISIS fighters have almost completely withdrawn from Deir al-Zor. The fighters are moving to Hassakeh and Raqqa [provinces],” said a source from the Nusra Front, who asked not to be identified. Raqqa remains an ISIS stronghold.

ISIS activists said on Twitter that the group had pulled out of Deir al-Zor to prevent further bloodshed among rebel factions who are supposed to be fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.

ISIS’ supporters said the estimated 200 fighters leaving Deir al-Zor would probably turn to assassinations and car bombings against the remaining rebel groups in the province – a tactic the group has used in other opposition-held areas.

Several Islamist and more secular rebel groups teamed up last month for an offensive to push their former ISIS allies out of rebel-held regions in northern and eastern Syria.

Activists in Deir al-Zor posted videos on the Internet that showed the main ISIS headquarters in the province collapse into a cloud of dust as rebels blew up the building.

ISIS, which has attracted many foreign militants into its ranks, is a small but powerful fighting force in Syria, and also operates in neighboring Iraq. It has alienated many civilians and opposition activists by imposing harsh rulings against dissent, even beheading its opponents, in areas it controls.

More than 2,300 rebels and ISIS militants have been killed in the past month of fighting, making it the bloodiest such episode since the conflict began nearly three years ago.

Dozens of people were killed in fighting between ISIS and its rivals over the weekend. In one incident, an ISIS suicide car bomber blew himself up among a crowd of civilians and fighters near a market, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, killing more than 20, including six children.

The Observatory said the driver informed a rebel who stopped his vehicle that he intended to carry out the bombing at a rebel checkpoint further down the road, and not the market, but detonated his explosives when the fighter tried to convince him to leave the vehicle.

Al-Qaeda’s central leadership formally announced a split with ISIS earlier this month.

The Observatory, a British-based pro-opposition monitoring group, said ISIS militants had summarily executed an unspecified number of detainees it held in Deir al-Zor province before abandoning their position, while the rebels had done the same to a number of ISIS militants captured during the clashes.

Some activists said one of ISIS’ Deir al-Zor leaders, known as Abu Ther al-Iraqi, was captured by rebels.

Elsewhere, rebels claimed advances against regime troops in the village of Morek in Hama province, while in another village, Maan, rebels killed at least 40 people, activists said.

State media described the attack as a “massacre” perpetrated by terrorists, a term the government uses for rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, said Islamic fighters overran Maan after villagers lobbed mortar bombs on the rebels using nearby roads. The Observatory said the “majority” of those killed were National Defense paramilitaries.

A video uploaded by the rebels of the Jund al-Aqsa Brigade, which said it overran the village, showed them waving a black jihadi flag over the village rooftops as bearded, grinning men looted homes. The video corresponded with the Associated Press’ reporting of the event.

But Jund al-Aqsa Brigade did not claim the killings, and neither did any other extremist group in Syria.

Regime troops backed by National Defense paramilitaries fought with rebels in the Homs province village of Zara, near Tal Kalakh and the border with Lebanon, with casualties reported on both sides, the Observatory said. At least three rebels were killed by what was believed to be a surface-to-surface missile strike, it said.

Regime helicopters dropped crude “barrel bombs” on the city of Aleppo but no fatalities were reported by activists on the ground. The crude devices were also dropped on the towns of Anadan and Hayyan in Aleppo province, causing an unknown number of fatalities, as well as on the village of Kfar Zeita in Hama, the Damascus suburb of Daraya, and the town of Khan al-Shih outside the capital

In the province of Deraa, regime airstrikes killed at least 10 people in the village of Taseel, the Observatory said, putting Sunday’s nationwide death toll at 286 people, of whom 246 were fighters from the various sides.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2014, on page 8.




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