BEIRUT: ISIS militants fighting in Syria’s war put to use for the first time Sunday American-made Humvees they seized during a lightening offensive in Iraq this month, an anti-regime monitor said. The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, used the armored vehicles to capture the villages of Eksar and Maalal in Aleppo province, which borders Turkey, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group.
The Observatory, which gets its information from a network of sources on the ground, said the seizure of the villages came after heavy fighting against the Islamic Front and its Al-Qaeda-affiliated ally, the Nusra Front.
The villages are located near the town of Azaz, which ISIS militiamen abandoned at the end of February under attack from rebels fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar Assad.
ISIS, which espouses a radical interpretation of Islam and aims to set up a state stretching across the Syria-Iraq border, is now expected to launch a bid to retake Azaz.
ISIS seized the Humvees and sent them to Syria after U.S.-trained Iraqi soldiers abandoned them during a surprise Sunni jihadist offensive that claimed Iraq’s second city of Mosul in addition to swathes of other territory in mid-June.
Also Sunday, ISIS gunmen abducted 20 Kurdish students on the road between Hassakeh and Qamishli in northeastern Syria, said the Observatory.
It comes three weeks after ISIS kidnapped 145 Kurdish students in Aleppo, as well as 193 Kurdish civilians at Qabbasin village in the same province. Parents of five students who managed to escape said the jihadists demanded that they join them in the fighting.
Kurdish militias, which are also trying to expand their autonomous region, have fought for months with ISIS, which has been seeking to seize from their control oil fields in northern and eastern areas.
The Syrian army Saturday carried out a series of airstrikes against a town near Deir al-Zor that was captured by ISIS a day earlier, killing 16 people, activists said Saturday.
The Observatory and pro-opposition news websites said the planes pounded parts of Muhasan with six airstrikes, adding that the casualties included three civilians.
Fighters from ISIS stormed Muhasan along the Euphrates River Friday, raising their black flags around the town after rebels from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council defected to the jihadi group, activists said.
The army has also launched airstrikes against suspected ISIS positions in the city of Raqqa in recent weeks, although anti-regime activists say the attacks have caused little damage, while there is no firm information about casualties among ISIS’ ranks.
Pro-regime media outlets said Sunday that Syrian troops were mopping up against rebel positions in the foothills of the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, state television said.
Regime forces took parts of the strategic Qalamoun region near the border with Lebanon in April, but some 2,000 rebel fighters withdrew to the hills, from where they have launched guerrilla attacks.
Fourteen fighters from the Hezbollah group have been killed in the area over the past two weeks, according to the Observatory.
Syria’s state broadcaster showed footage of the troops, saying they had taken “some hills overlooking the Rankous plain and are pursuing terrorist groups who tried to infiltrate the region from Lebanon.”
An officer interviewed by the channel said: “The army has cut the route off to terrorist groups who try to return to the region from time to time. The operation is continuing until the whole of the Qalamoun area has been cleansed. This land will be a cemetery for all terrorists who decide to return.”