BEIRUT: The Al-Qaeda breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) captured a key Syrian town near the Iraq border from other rebels Tuesday and advanced toward a stronghold of its main jihadi rivals, an activist group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Al-Bukamal fell to the militants early Tuesday following days of battles between the group and other factions led by the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.
Activists in the area could not immediately be reached and calls to al-Bukamal and nearby areas were not going through.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said the group brought in reinforcements from Iraq during the fighting.
The latest victory by the jihadi group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, came two days after it declared the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate.
The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims to pledge allegiance to it.
Some Islamist groups fighting in Syria have rejected the announcement of the caliphate.
Nine groups, including fighters and religious scholars, have dismissed the statement by ISIS, which declared its leader ruler of the Muslim world Sunday after military gains in neighboring Iraq.
ISIS has seized parts of eastern Syria and western Iraq but is still battling rival Islamist fighters in Syria.
“The terms of the caliphate have not been realized at present, especially in terms of state organizations,” the statement by the nine groups said, calling on Muslims to avoid siding with Islamic State.
They also said the announcement would be used as pretext by foreign powers who want to tilt the balance against rebels seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad and would improve his image in the West as a legitimate leader.
The June 30 statement, which Syrian activists said appeared genuine, was signed by groups including Islamic Front, an Islamist coalition which includes Saudi-backed combatants, and by the top body of Syrian Islamic scholars in exile.
The Nusra Front, one of Islamic State’s main rivals in the country, has yet to comment.
Infighting between anti-Assad armed groups has killed around 7,000 people so far this year according to the Observatory.
ISIS, which derives much of its strength from foreign fighters, has seized swathes of territory in Iraq including the city of Mosul and has advanced toward Baghdad.
By claiming leadership across the Muslim world – in a direct challenge to Al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahri – Islamic State could deepen divisions and rivalry among Al-Qaeda offshoots.
“This announcement will only deepen the conflict with the central Al-Qaeda organization over the legitimacy of who represents it now and as a result who represents true Islam,” said Hasan Abu Haniyah, an expert on jihadist Islamic groups.
The Observatory said ISIS released more than 100 detainees it was holding in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab after the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued an amnesty on the occasion of establishing the self-styled caliphate.
Last week, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters defected and joined their rivals in Al-Bukamal – effectively handing over the town to the powerful group, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
The Observatory said the Al-Qaeda breakaway group is advancing toward the town of Shheil, northwest of Al-Bukamal, a Nusra Front stronghold believed to be the hometown of its leader, a Syrian known as Abu Muhammad al-Golani. As fighting between rival groups intensified later Tuesday, thousands of Shheil’s inhabitants were seen fleeing the town, the Observatory said.