DAMASCUS: Fighters allied to Al Qaeda tightened their grip on a Syrian border town yesterday, as President Bashar Al Assad claimed most of the rebels fighting his forces were linked to the extremist group.
Elsewhere in the country, a bomb attack on a bus in the central province of Homs killed nine civilians, adding to the more than 110,000 casualties of the 30-month conflict.
Residents said members of Al Qaeda front group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) overran the border town of Azaz on Wednesday after an hours-long firefight with members of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Residents reached by Skype said ISIS men controlled all the checkpoints in the town and that FSA fighters appeared to have left.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that rebel fighters from Liwa Al Tawhid, one of Aleppo province’s most powerful groups and allied to the FSA, had arrived in the area.
A Liwa Al Tawhid spokesman said via Skype the group “will work to try and calm the situation... We are doing our best to solve the differences and to find a solution that satisfies everyone”.
Azaz, on the Turkish border, was one of the first towns to be overrun, in July 2012, by FSA rebels, who set up their own administration.
Tensions between some opposition groups and ISIS have spiralled in recent months, especially in northern Syria, where the opposition controls vast swathes of territory.
Several local groups resent ISIS’s growing territorial control, its steady supply of arms, as well as its brutality, which opponents often compare to that of the regime’s.
ISIS, on the other hand, has accused some rebels affiliated with the FSA’s Supreme Military Command of collaborating with the West and of being “heretics”.
Assad, in a confident interview Wednesday with US television network Fox News, insisted Syria was not gripped by civil war but was the victim of infiltration by foreign-backed Al-Qaeda fighters.
“What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It’s a new kind of war,” he said, alleging that Islamist guerrillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight.
“We know that we have tens of thousands of jihadists... we are on the ground, we live in this country,” he said, after an expert report suggested that between 40 and 45 percent of around 100,000 rebels were jihadists or hardline Islamists.
“What I can tell you is that... 80 to 90 percent of the underground terrorists are Al Qaeda and their offshoots,” was Assad’s assessment.
Roadside bombs targeting a convoy of minibuses in the central province of Homs killed nine civilians yesterday, the Observatory’s director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
He said the blasts occurred on the road linking Homs city to a string of villages populated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which Assad belongs.