Jihadi group captures Syrian border town
BEIRUT (AP) — The al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured a key Syrian town near the Iraq border from other rebels on Tuesday and advanced toward a stronghold of its main jihadi rivals, an activist group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Boukamal fell to the militants early Tuesday following days of battles between the group and other factions led by the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Activists in the area could not immediately be reached and calls to Boukamal and nearby areas were not going through.
The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said the group brought in reinforcements from Iraq during the fighting.
The latest victory by the jihadi group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, came two days after it declared the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate.
The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to it.
The Observatory said the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant released more than 100 detainees it was holding in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab after the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued an amnesty on the occasion of establishing the self-styled caliphate.
Last week, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters defected and joined their rivals in Boukamal —effectively handing over the town to the powerful group, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing.
The Observatory said the al-Qaida breakaway group is advancing toward the town of Shuheil, northwest of Boukamal, a Nusra Front stronghold believed to be the hometown of its leader, a Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani. As fighting between rival groups intensified later Tuesday, thousands of Shuheil’s inhabitants were seen fleeing the town, the Observatory said.
Up to 7,000 people, the majority of them fighters, have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel violence across the opposition-held territory in northern and eastern Syria since January, according to the Observatory’s tally, which is compiled by its activists on the ground.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has acted with brutal efficiency in territory under its control in Iraq and in Syria, fighting its armed rivals for control of strategic facilities, including oil fields. It also intimidates civilians, captures those who dare to speak up against it, and executes its armed rivals.
In the northern Aleppo province, it has been holding 133 boys from the predominantly Kurdish town of Ayn al-Arab, according to a statement Tuesday by Human Rights Watch. The New York-based group demanded the militants immediately release the boys, aged 13 to 14.
The group had abducted 153 children on May 29 as they were returning home from their exams in the city of Aleppo, Human Rights Watch said. To reach Aleppo, Syria’s largest city located about 110 kilometers north of Ayn al-Arab, the bus carrying the children had to drive across territory controlled by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Five boys escaped their captors, and 15 others were released on Saturday in exchange for three of the group’s militants held by Kurdish rebels, the watchdog said in the statement, which was based on interviews with fathers of three abducted children and three officials from the ruling Kurdish Democratic Union Party in Ayn al-Arab.
Associated Press Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.