Syria: dozens killed in Isis bus attack

Assault reportedly targeted Syrian regime soldiers returning to their posts in Deir ez-Zor, near Iraq border

At least 37 people in Syria have been killed in one of the biggest attacks carried out by Islamic State since the fall of the self-proclaimed caliphate last year.

The assault on Wednesday reportedly targeted a convoy of Syrian regime soldiers and militiamen returning from leave to their posts in Deir ez-Zor province, a mainly desert area on the border with Iraq.

The official state news agency, Sana, reported that a terrorist attack on a bus on the main highway killed 25 civilians and wounded 13. Other sources, including local residents, a military defector and the UK-based monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), put the toll higher and claimed soldiers were onboard. One source told Reuters that the men were from Bashar al-Assad’s elite Fourth Brigade.

According to SOHR, the bus was ambushed in a well-planned operation near the village of Shula by jihadists who set up a checkpoint to stop the convoy and detonated bombs before opening fire. Two more buses managed to escape.

“It was one of the deadliest attacks since the fall of the Isis (self-proclaimed) caliphate” last year, the Observatory head, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the incident.

Founded amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war, Isis declared its so-called caliphate in 2014 and at one point controlled an area of Syria and Iraq as big as the UK and home to around 8 million people.

The group lost control of the last slivers of its territory in the Deir Ez-Zor desert in March 2019 after five years of offensives conducted mostly by the US and its regional allies to oust the militants from both countries.

Jihadist sleeper cells have continued to launch ambushes and hit-and-run attacks from caves and bases in Syria’s vast desert, and Isis militants and Assad’s troops often clash in the area.

There has been a marked surge in the violence in recent months, residents say. In April, 27 fighters loyal to the Damascus government and allied Iranian militiamen were killed in an Isis attack near the desert town of al-Sukhna.

Local tribes have also voiced anger over executions carried out by regime-allied Iranian militias of dozens of nomads suspected of affiliation to the militants.

In the north of the country in recent days, rebel fighters backed by Turkey have clashed with Kurdish forces near Ain Issa, a town on a strategic highway that has been patrolled by Russian and Turkish troops since US forces withdrew from the area in 2019.

Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent allies capitalised on the US drawdown to seize territory previously controlled by the Kurdish-led SDF militia, which fought alongside the US against Isis.

Ain Issa, east of the Euphrates river, also has a sprawling camp for displaced people, where the SDF has held families of Isis fighters, including foreigners.

The violence has led Russia to send military police reinforcements to the area.

A decade of civil war in Syria has drawn in foreign powers, killed an estimated 500,000 people, and driven more than half of the pre-war population from their homes.

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