Isil 'kidnaps at least 400 people' in heavy clashes at key Syrian city
More than 400 people are believed to have been kidnapped by Isil in eastern Syria as the militants cemented control of the key city of Deir Ezzor during heavy clashes.
Isil launched a shock attack on the northwestern suburb of Balighia on Saturday evening, killing 18 regime soldiers and abducting several families, according to sources on the ground. Around a dozen civilians, most from a single family, were understood to have been killed in retaliatory regime and Russian air strikes.
The assault comes despite a four-month Russian air campaign that Moscow said would beat back the militants, and more than a year of strikes by a US-led coalition against the jihadists in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said families of pro-government fighters were among those 400 reported abducted.
"There is genuine fear for their lives, there is a fear that the group might execute them as it has done before in other areas," said the Observatory's head Rami Abdulrahamn.
Deir Ezzor is the main town in a province of the same name. The province links Isil's de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa with territory controlled by the militant group in neighbouring Iraq.
Amer Howaidy, a media activist working to smuggle out news from the mostly Isil-held city, said that the hostages were believed to have been taken to a village in the west of the province, where they would be forcibly recruited.
The state news agency and others close to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president, put the death toll significantly higher, reporting that 300 people had been killed.
A source close to the Syrian government side said some of those killed had been beheaded.
However, activists on the ground said they had no knowledge of kidnappings on the scale of the 400 claimed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Isil's assault puts the jihadists in control of around 60pc of Deir Ezzor. The remaining government-held suburbs have been besieged by Isil forces for more than a year, and gone without electricity for 11 months.
Of those under siege in the city, 70pc are women and children, and many have been displaced from their homes elsewhere and are living in temporary shelters.
Isil has previously carried out mass killings following military assaults in Iraq and Syria, including the slaughter of 200 soldiers captured from the Tabqa airbase in Raqqa province, and hundreds of members of the al-Sheitat tribe in Deir Ezzor in 2014.
Meanwhile, the US government says it is working to clarify reports that three American citizens have gone missing in Iraq.
"We are aware of reports that American citizens are missing in Iraq," the State Department official said.
The pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya had reported that three US citizens were kidnapped in Baghdad.
"We are working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals," said the US official.