Islamist rebels led by al-Qai'da have taken control of the largest oilfield in Syria, boosting their own economic power whilst severing President Bashar al-Assad's access to almost all the crude oil reserves in the country.
Civilians confirmed that extremists led by Jabhat al-Nusra, a group proscribed by the US for its affiliation to al-Qa'ida, had taken the oilfield in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, after a video was posted online showing rebels driving a tank under a sign that read "Euphrates Oil Company – al-Omar field".
Local residents said yesterday they feared being targeted for government air strikes after the takeover of the oilfield which broke a deal between the Assad regime and rebels in the area.
"Before, the rebels only took oil from the pipeline outside of al-Omar, and, in exchange for not attacking the plant itself, the regime continued to allow gas and electricity supplies to reach our towns," said a resident.
"Now we are afraid we will be targeted for air strikes, or that the regime will have no reason not to cut our electricity. We are angry at Nusra and the rebels, we don't believe they are doing this for our freedom. They are thieves who got greedy and wanted more money."
Islamist and al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups in the east of the country have in the past year drawn much financial power and influence by selling crude to civilians in rebel-held areas and to parts of the country under regime control.
Peter Harling, a senior analyst with International Crises Group, said the oilfield takeover was most significant in how it aided the ascendency of al-Qa'ida groups. The regime itself had already stopped relying on domestic oil supplies. "Officials couldn't care less about the east of the country, in which they have lost interest: they depend on other sources," he said.
Meanwhile, the London-based Oxford Research Group said more than 11,000 children have died in nearly three years of conflict in Syria, including hundreds killed under torture or in summary executions.
The report, 'Stolen Futures – the Hidden Toll of Child Casualties in Syria', provides some of the most distressing figures to emerge from the civil war. Of the 11,420 victims aged 17 and under, more than 70pc died from "explosive weapons", air strikes and artillery shells fired on civilian areas.
However, 764 of the children were summarily executed, and more than 100 – including infants – died under torture, the report says. A further 389 boys and girls were killed by sniper fire.
"The conflict in Syria has had a catastrophic effect on the country's children. Besides the many whose lives and futures have been stolen, many more will have been injured, maimed, psychologically impacted, uprooted from their homes and orphaned," the report says.
This weekend saw some of the bloodiest fighting to hit Damascus, the Syrian capital, with more than 160 people reportedly killed in front-line battles as rebel groups attempted to break a year-long regime siege on some suburbs. (© Daily Telegraph, London)