Hundreds of Syrian civilians believed abducted by Isis
At least 135 killed in attack on strategic town of Deir ez-Zor, says UK-based observatory
The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, which was reportedly overrun by Islamic State fighters. Photograph: Ahmad Aboud/AFP/Getty Images
Islamic State fighters have seized more than 400 civilians after capturing new ground in a major assault on the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, according to reports.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State, also know as Isis, killed at least 135 people in the multifront attack that began on Saturday.
The dead included 85 civilians and 50 Syrian regime fighters, according to the human rights monitor, which said on Sunday that Isis also kidnapped more than 400 civilians from captured territory.
“Those abducted, all of whom are Sunnis, include women, children and family members of pro-regime fighters,” said the director of the observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman.
He said they were taken to areas under Isis control in the west of Deir ez-Zor province and to the border with Raqqa province – Isis’s main stronghold in Syria – to the northwest.
The monitor said at least 42 Isis fighters had been killed in the attack and that fighting was ongoing, with regime forces backed by Russian air strikes trying to recapture lost ground.
It added that regime forces were bringing in more troops and military equipment from elsewhere in the city to the battlefront.
Syria’s state news agency, Sana, said at least 300 civilians, “most of them women, children and elderly people”, were killed in the assault. It denounced the deaths as a “massacre”.
It was not possible to independently verify the reports.
The oil and gas fields in the province, which are a key source of income for the militant group, have been repeatedly bombed by the US-led coalition and by British warplanes when they began bombing Isis targets in Syria in December.
Deir ez-Zor city, the capital of the province, is mostly under Isis control except for a few districts still held by forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad. Residents there have endured months of siege.
The offensive in Deir ez-Zor may be intended to burnish the jihadi group’s image in its redoubts in Syria and Iraq, having lost much territory in recent months to different forces.
In northern Syria, close to the capital of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Raqqa, the militants have lost vast tracts of land to an American-backed offensive by Kurdish militias, whose forces are now just 48km from the city.
If confirmed, the death toll in the assault would be one of the highest in a single attack by Isis, though the jihadists have carried out mass murders before.
In 2014, its fighters killed hundreds of members of the Sunni Shaitat tribe in Deir ez-Zor province after they opposed the jihadis. In August 2014, the group massacred about 200 Syrian soldiers when it overran the Tabqa military base in Raqqa province.
The jihadists have carried out mass abductions before, seizing more than 200 civilians from central Homs province in August 2014 and at least 220 Assyrian Christians from villages in the northeast of the country months earlier.
Some of those abducted in those incidents have been freed in batches, in some cases reportedly in exchange for ransoms.
The assault came despite a Russian air campaign targeting the group that began in September and more than a year of strikes by a US-led coalition against the jihadis in Syria.
– (Guardian service)