Tue, Nov 14, 2017 - Page 6 News List

IS regains control of last Syria redoubt

‘SCORCHED EARTH’:Russia on Sunday intensified its shelling of Albu Kamal, having killed at least 50 civilians since Friday, including at least 30 from only three families

Reuters, AMMAN

Islamic State (IS) militants regained control of Albu Kamal, their last stronghold in Syria, after Iranian-backed militias who claimed to have captured the city a few days earlier were ambushed and forced to retreat, tribal leaders, residents and a war monitor said yesterday.

Fighters from Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah in Syria who joined forces with Iraqi Shiite fighters crossing the border into Syria were taken by surprise by militants hiding inside tunnels in the heart of the city they said they had taken on Wednesday, they said.

The Shiite fighters had launched a ground offensive on the city after months of mainly heavy Russian bombardment against the city that killed dozens of civilians and caused widespread destruction.

“Islamic State militants began surprise attacks with suicide bombers and rocket attacks after the Iranian militias were duped that Daesh [IS] had left the city,” said Qahtan Ghanam al-Ali, a tribal leader in touch with relatives.

The Syrian army on Thursday had declared victory over the IS, saying it had killed many militants while scores surrendered. It said the capture of Albu Kamal marked the collapse of the militants’ three-year reign in the region.

The army made no mention of the loss of Albu Kamal, but Hezbollah’s media unit said intensive aerial strikes pounded IS hideouts in the western countryside of the city.

The offensive was spearheaded by elite forces from Hezbollah fighting inside Syria alongside an array of Iraqi and Afghan Shiite militias that had entered from Iraq, a commander in that alliance said.

“These militant attacks lead to big human losses in the ranks of fighters supporting the regime,” the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Albu Kamal, a major supply and communications hub for the ultra-hardline militants between Syria and Iraq, was a big prize for the Iranian-backed militias.

The militants’ control of the city and its sister border town of al-Qaim on the Iraqi side had disrupted the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway that had long been a major arms supply conduit by Iran to its Syrian ally.

The Syrian opposition and some Western countries say Iran’s strong military intervention on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, alongside its backing of other Shiite militias, is fueling the sectarian dimension of the Syrian civil war by radicalizing mainstream Sunni rebels.

An overstretched Syrian army is now more than ever dependent on Shiite militias on the ground and Russia’s military fire power to recapture ground from Sunni insurgents.

On Sunday, jets believed to be Russian intensified their third day of bombing of Albu Kamal and its outskirts, with at least 50 civilians, mostly women and children, killed since Friday, the monitor and residents said.

In retaliation for their losses, Iranian militias who were forced to withdraw shelled villages east of the city where hundreds of families who fled Albu Kamal had found temporary refuge, war monitor said.

In one air strike on the town of Sukariya at least 30 people were killed, mostly women and children from three families, two former residents of the city said.

Other aerial strikes hit the villages of Marshada and Sousa near a river crossing where hundreds of civilians were targeted as they fled in small boats, they added.

Military experts and Syrian opposition figures say Russia has stepped up a “scorched earth” policy in the province with its aerial bombing to secure a rapid military victory at any price for its military and allies.

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