ISIS militants went on the offensive in eastern Syria Tuesday and have returned to the outskirts of a strategic oil refinery town in Iraq after being driven out last month, activist groups and officials said.
The US-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq launched ten more strikes against the militants, destroying various fighting positions, the American military said in a statement.
The seven strikes in Syria and three in Iraq also struck a unit of ISIS fighters as well as some of the militants’ oil collection equipment, according to the Combined Joint Task Force for the operation.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an anti-regime monitoring group based in Britain, said ISIS fighters seized territory south of the city of Qamishli, after clashes with Kurdish militia fighters and pro-regime paramilitaries from the National Defense forces.The Observatory said dozens of ISIS fighters had entered Syria’s Hassakeh province, where the clashes were taking place, from Iraq.
In Deir al-Zor province, ISIS militants seized a hill overlooking the military airport on the outskirts of the provincial capital, the Observatory said. Regime forces and paramilitary groups defending the airport have recently beaten back two ISIS attempts to take the facility, one of the last outposts held by the regime in the east of the country.
ISIS fighters destroyed a tank and two heavy machine guns in the clashes, which coincided with ten regime airstrikes against their positions.
The Observatory said that heavy fighting also took place between ISIS forces and Kurdish militia fighters in the border town of Ain al-Arab, and that three coalition airstrikes targeted the militants during the clashes.
Three months of US-led strikes in Syria have so far killed at least 1,171 people, mostly ISIS militants, the Observatory said.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, the head of the Observatory, told Reuters only 52 were civilians. In a separate statement, to Arabiya television, Abdel-Rahman said that in contrast, “90 percent” of the victims of regime airstrikes have been civilians.
His network of activists, who are based around Syria, said the death toll since the military campaign was launched in late September was probably higher among ISIS militants. “This is because of the difficulty of activists reaching areas hit by the coalition and also because [ISIS] keeps a tight lid on its human losses,” Abdel-Rahman said.
The US and its allies have significantly scaled down their airstrikes in Syria since late September compared to the first month of the campaign, although the last several days have seen a slight increase in their frequency.
The Observatory said Tuesday’s coalition airstrike on an oil facility in Deir al-Zor province killed three civilians.
In total, the United States carried out 488 air strikes in Syria through Dec. 15, according to US military data. The Observatory figures do not include casualties in Iraq.
An Iraqi official, Gov. Raed Ibrahim of the Salahuddin province, said ISIS militants fought their way to the edge of Beiji Tuesday after three days of heavy clashes. He says they were able to advance because Iraqi troops lack heavy weapons. The militants captured Beiji and besieged its refinery – the country’s largest – during their rapid advance across Iraq last summer.
Iraqi forces wrested the town back in mid-November in one of their biggest victories to date against the insurgents.
Elsewhere in Syria, regime warplanes carried out at least 10 strikes targeting areas in eastern Damascus and its suburbs, the Observatory said.
Six civilians, among them four children, were killed by a strike against the rebel-held suburb of Douma, while regime planes pounded the neighborhood of Jobar with at least half a dozen strikes, it added.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission said the strike in Douma hit a school, in the second such incident this week.
Seven people were killed and ten others were wounded in helicopter attack on a village in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria.
The helicopter targeted a market with a barrel bomb in the village of Sufuhan, a rebel police official told the Anadolu Agency.
“The attack targeted civilians and the regime is taken revenge on civilians after losing Wadi Deif and Hamidieh,” Lt. Mohammad Halabi said, referring to this month’s seizure of army bases by rebel and jihadi groups.
Also, a mortar bomb struck the Damascus neighborhood of Maisat, after a recent lull in rebel strikes targeting the capital. No information about casualties was available, although the Observatory, citing local sources, said several ambulances rushed to the area.
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