Fresh blow to Isil as Assad troops press on with offensive
Syrian troops and allied militiamen pressed on with an offensive against Islamic State (Isil) militants in central Syria last night, clashing with the extremists around the town of Qaryatain a day after it was captured by pro-government forces.
The push into Qaryatain took place under the cover of Russian airstrikes and dealt another setback to Isil in Syria a week after the army retook the historic town of Palmyra from the group. Syria's state news agency, SANA, said the army was fighting Isil militants in areas around Qaryatain yesterday, as well as in farms east and north of Palmyra.
The capture of Qaryatain deprives Isil of a main base in central Syria and it could be used by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in the future to launch attacks on Isil-held areas near the Iraqi border. Qaryatain used to be home to a sizable Christian population and lies midway between Palmyra and the capital, Damascus. Activists said last summer that Qaryatain had a mixed population of around 40,000 Sunni Muslims and Christians, as well as thousands of internally displaced people who had fled from the nearby city of Homs. Many of the Christians fled the town after it came under attack by Isil.
Dozens of Qaryatain's Christians and other residents have been abducted by Isil. While the town was under Isil control, some were released while others were made to sign pledges to pay a tax imposed on non-Muslims.
Also yesterday, a senior US official said it was a US airstrike that killed a senior al-Qaida official on Sunday night. The strike killed at least 21 other militants in Idlib province, a jihadist stronghold in northern Syria.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorised to discuss the operation.
The SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadi websites, said Abu Firas al-Souri died in US strikes while the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jets were thought to belong to the Syrian or Russian air forces. It said they targeted the headquarters of Jund al-Aqsa, an extremist group that fights alongside al-Qa'ida's Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.
Al-Souri was the former official spokesman for the Nusra Front, the group reported on social media yesterday.
A 2014 biographical video about al-Souri, obtained by SITE, says he used to represent Osama bin Laden in Pakistan after he met the al-Qa'ida founder in Afghanistan during the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
A media outlet belonging to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah said al-Souri's son was also killed in the airstrikes.