Middle East

Syria government forces take village near Lebanese border

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) shows smoke billowing from houses in the town of Zara, in the province of Homs, on March 8, 2014 during a reported military operation against rebels. AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces seized a village in the central Homs province on Saturday, state media and activists say, as part of a push for control of areas along the Lebanese border.

The village of al-Zara, west of the city of Homs, fell after "heavy clashes" between government and rebel forces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, although the number of casualties was not immediately clear.

Al-Zara is inhabited mostly by Sunni Muslims from the ethnic Turkmen minority, it added.

In a statement on state news agency SANA, Syria's armed forces said they had established complete control over the village and killed and captured a "large number of terrorists", using state media's customary term for rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad.

The victory gave government forces control over a route connecting central Syria to the Mediterranean coast and which had been used as "a primary route for terrorist groups coming from Lebanese territory to neighbouring areas to carry out criminal operations", it said.

Syria's civil war has killed over 140,000 people since it started three years ago as a peaceful protest movement against four decades of Assad family rule.

The conflict has become increasingly tangled as rebel groups - including many hardline Islamist factions - have turned on one another, leading to clashes that have killed thousands of people this year alone.

Separately, a video was published online by activists purportedly showing members of the al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) executing eight prisoners.

In the video, fighters in fatigues line up the prisoners inside a building and force them to kneel before shooting them from behind.

Some of the men in the video speak Russian with marked Caucasian accents and speech patterns. Toward the end, one speaker is heard to say "kill them, brothers".

Many foreign Islamists have joined the fight against Assad, largely from Arab countries but also from Russia's North Caucasus region as well as Europe, North America and Asia.

It is not clear when the video was taken or where. Syrian state media also broadcast the footage, which it was not possible to verify independently. Activists said the fighters belonged to ISIL, but that was also impossible to verify.

ISIS is a rebranding of Al-Qaeda's affiliate in neighbouring Iraq but Al-Qaeda's central leadership formally announced a split with the group in February after disputes over its refusal to limit itself to fighting in Iraq rather than Syria.

Another hardline Islamist group, the Nusra Front, is al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria.





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