At least 51 have been killed in bloody fighting between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) around a town on the Iraqi border on Thursday, Agence France-Presse reported a monitoring group as saying.
Fighters of ISIS, a cross-border group which has been disowned by the al-Qaeda leadership, launched a three-pronged assault on positions held by the FSA and its allies, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
ISIS fighters were driven out of Albokamal in heavy fighting earlier this year and are seeking to link up with their comrades over the border in Iraq, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“Since dawn there has been fierce fighting inside Albokamal. ISIS is advancing and has taken control of several neighborhoods of the town which were previously held by al-Nusra Front and Islamist brigades,” he said.
A rebel commander loyal to the mainstream Free Syrian Army said it continued to control the nearby border crossing to the Iraqi town of al-Qaim and an AFP correspondent on the Iraqi side saw the FSA flag still flying over it.
“We are still controlling the border crossing,” the rebel commander told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“ISIS are attacking our positions in Albokamal, and the battles since yesterday (Wednesday) are in three different areas about 15 kilometers (10 miles) from the center of the city. The battles are still continuing.”
While ISIS was making gains, its head in Albokamal, Nader al-Rikhita, was killed during the clashes, Al Arabiya News Channel reported.
Albokamal has been under the control of fighters opposed to the Damascus regime since November 2012 but al-Nusra and its allies forced out ISIL fighters in heavy fighting earlier this year.
The Euphrates valley town had a pre-war population of some 70,000.
Syrian government troops control just one official crossing on the Iraqi border - Al-Tanaf/Al-Walid on the main highway to Baghdad.
A third crossing, Yarabiyah/Rabia in the northeast is controlled by Kurdish militia.
Washington backed away from military action in September after blaming President Bashar al-Assad for gassing civilians as it was hamstrung by fears over the dominance of the Nusra Front and ISIS in the rebels’ ranks.
However, U.S. security sources recently told Reuters that Washington was finalizing a plan to increase training and small-arms shipments for Syrian rebels.
The United States would increase assistance and send the shipments to moderate rebel factions mostly based in Jordan, along Syria’s southern border, the officials familiar with the plan told Reuters.
Fighting in the north
Meanwhile in the north of the country, the Free Syrian Army made gains in Aleppo and said its fighters had launched an attack on the regime’s military intelligence headquarters in the city.
According to www.shahbapress.com, the FSA took control Wednesday night of the Malliya roundabout and more than 20 buildings in the Zahra. The website also reported that clashes are still ongoing in the vicinity of the air force’s military intelligence building.
The regime also announced gains as it claimed to have taken control of Rankous in the Qalamoun region. The Syrian army launched a series of air raids on the town of Maliha which has been under attack since last week, coinciding with fighting near the Nour checkpoint.
(With AFP and Reuters)