Middle East

ISIS moves west to attack Syrian army in Homs: activists

Rebel fighters sit on a pick-up truck as one of them mans an anti-aircraft weapon after what activists said were airstrikes by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Assad in the northwestern Homs district of Al Waer March 17, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

BEIRUT: ISIS fighters attacked a military airport in Syria's Homs province Monday as they pressed a westward offensive against government strongholds, an activist group said.

Forays by ISIS, which is strongest in the northeast and east, into the provinces of Homs, Hama and even Damascus pose a fresh challenge for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syria's army has seized control of a swathe of territory from Damascus through the cities of Homs and Hama to the western coast by defeating other, less powerful militias including rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the violence through a network of sources in the country, said ISIS attacked a military airport in Tadmur, a town in Homs province, early Monday.

Syrian officials could not immediately be reached for comment, and the fighting was not reported on state media.

Observatory head Rami Abdulrahman said 74 soldiers in Hama province had been killed by ISIS, which he speculated launched both attacks to raise morale after losses to Kurdish forces in the northeast.

The offensive followed a three-day battle that erupted Friday further west in Hama around Sheikh Hilal village, the Observatory said. ISIS was trying to cut the road from Hama to Aleppo, once Syria's most populous city, it added.

A Syrian official said ISIS had killed around 70 people in the Sheikh Hilal area in what he described as a "massacre against civilians," adding that some of the bodies were mutilated.

Some of those killed may have been from locally formed defense groups or were off-duty soldiers but there were no military casualties, he said.

Around 200,000 people have been killed since 2011 in Syria's civil war, which pits Assad against a range of rebels including jihadi groups such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda's Nusra Front. A U.S-led coalition is bombarding ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

Kurdish forces, backed by coalition airstrikes, defeated ISIS in the northern Syria town of Kobani this year and other areas in the northeast.

Syrian state television said Syria's army killed 19 ISIS fighters Monday in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, one of the insurgent group's strongholds.

Government supporters posted a video on YouTube Saturday showing trucks covered in the national flag carrying coffins of people said to have been killed fighting ISIS in Hama province.

The footage was said to be taken in Salamiya, a religiously-diverse town east of Hama that has been attacked by jihadi brigades.

An ISIS fighter told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the Hama campaign aimed to eventually take Salamiya. "The ultimate goal is liberate Salamiya and Hama but it will not happen before Islamic State (ISIS) is 100 percent ready," he said.





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