BEIRUT: Syrian soldiers clashed with ISIS militants outside a government-controlled army airport Friday, part of a major escalation of fighting between the Al-Qaeda offshoot and the military.
The hard-line Al-Qaeda splinter group has gained ground in Syria over the past five weeks, bolstered by equipment seized in a lightning offensive last month in neighboring Iraq.
The group Thursday seized the Shaar oil field, east of the central city of Homs, in what the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime group, said was one of its bloodiest clashes with President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The death toll from the raid rose to 115 Friday, the Observatory said. The fate of 250 other people was unknown, it added.
A video posted online Thursday, purportedly of the battle site, showed armed men pacing through a barren desert space speaking in Arabic and German as they examined what appeared to be more than 50 bodies, many with gunshot wounds to the head, chest and legs. Some of the bodies appeared to be young men.
“Here lie two pigs,” said one of the men, speaking German. At least two multiple-rocket launchers and other military vehicles were visible.
The government did not officially confirm the deaths, but regime supporters posted photographs of the dead, and branded their killings as a “massacre.”
One pro-regime Twitter user said: “Thirty martyrs were brought to Homs hospital from the Shaar gas field ... Homs is still bleeding.”
He also branded the killings as a “massacre,” and posted pictures of the dead.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the Observatory, said that 11 of the dead were civilian employees, while the rest were security guards and National Defense Forces paramilitaries.
The Observatory initially reported 25 of the killed were civilians, but later revised its toll downwards.
The Observatory, which tracks the violence through a network of contacts in Syria, said the government had sent reinforcements backed by helicopters to the nearby Hajjar oil field.
Fighting also broke out Friday between ISIS and government forces at the army airport in Deir al-Zor, one of the last major strategic locations in Deir al-Zor province not under the control of ISIS.
The Syrian army responded to the militants’ offensive by bombing areas around the airport, which supplies its forces in the east of the country, the Observatory said. There were no details of casualties.
The fighting was just a few hundred meters from the airport, Abdel-Rahman said, noting that it would be tough for ISIS to overcome government forces there.
Earlier in the week ISIS managed to expel its Al-Qaeda rival the Nusra Front and several other militias from the city of Deir al-Zor, tightening its hold on the eastern province bordering Iraq.
Capturing most of Deir al-Zor province has helped ISIS link up territorial gains across Syria and Iraq, where it seized the northern city of Mosul in June.
In northern Aleppo province, ISIS militants appeared to suffer a setback in their ongoing battle with the Kurdish YPG militia. The Observatory said the Kurd fighters killed at least five ISIS militants when they tried to storm a position near the town of Ain Arab, or Cobani in Kurdish, one of the three “capitals” of the self-rule region declared by the Kurds along the north of Syria.
And in the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, where ISIS militants form a small minority of the insurgents, nine rebel groups issued an ultimatum to ISIS to leave the area. Several militias, such as the Islam Army, have been locked in fierce battles with ISIS over the last several weeks, and observers say the rebels are gradually gaining the upper hand.
In the city of Aleppo, warplanes and helicopters pounded the former northern metropolis amid fierce clashes in several areas around the city, pitting regime troops and paramilitaries versus Islamist and other rebel groups.
Also, in the province of Hama, government forces pounded rebels in the village of Morek with 12 airstrikes and six barrel bombs dropped by helicopter, the Observatory said.
There was conflicting information as to which side was in control of parts of the town, strategically important because it lies on the Aleppo-Hama highway.
After several weeks of slightly lower casualty figures, the Observatory said Thursday’s nationwide death toll stood at 314 people, of whom 163 were regime troops and allied fighters.