Islamic militants capture Syrian town near the border with Iraq

A powerful truck bomb exploded on Friday in a government-held village in central Syria, killing at least 34 civilians and wounding more than 50, as an al-Qaida breakaway group captured a major town to the east, near the Iraqi border, activists said.

BEIRUT — A powerful truck bomb exploded on Friday in a government-held village in central Syria, killing at least 34 civilians and wounding more than 50, as an al-Qaida breakaway group captured a major town to the east, near the Iraqi border, activists said.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stormed the town of Muhassan on the Euphrates river after rebels from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council defected to the jihadi group, activists said. The village is in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour where the Islamic State has been on the offensive since late April against rival jihadi and Islamic groups.

The capture of Muhassan, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the Iraqi border, and two nearby villages, comes a week after the group swept across wide areas in northern and central Iraq, capturing that country’s second largest city of Mosul, and carving out a large region straddling the border.

“The capture of Muhassan is one of the biggest victories for the Islamic State in Deir el-Zour because it is home of the main centre of the military council in the province,” said Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

An activist based in the province who goes by the name Abu Abdullah said residents told him that Islamic State fighters raise their black flags around the town. He added via Skype that many of the rebels in Muhassan expressed loyalty to the group.

The Islamic State’s seven-week offensive in Deir el-Zour against rival groups including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham has killed more than 640 people and uprooted at least 130,000, according to activists.

Earlier Friday, state news agency SANA said the truck bomb exploded in Horrah village in the countryside near the central city of Hama. It quoted an unnamed official in the Hama police command as saying that the truck was loaded with about three tons of explosives.

The attack “caused the destruction of a large number of houses and buildings in the village,” the report said. It did not immediately provide further information on the attack or say what the target was.

The Islamic Front, an umbrella for several rebel groups in Syria, claimed responsibility for the attack in a video posted online, which showed a night-time explosion that sent a ball of fire into the sky.

The Observatory, which documents the violence in Syria through an extensive network of activists on the ground, said at least 37 people were killed and more than 40 others were wounded in the bombing. In a statement, it said the toll was likely to rise because many of the wounded were in critical condition.

Car bombs are common in Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year. The conflict has killed more than 160,000 people, according to opposition activists. Nearly a third of those killed were civilians.

The Syrian conflict started in March 2011 with Arab Spring-inspired protests against President Bashar Assad’s rule but escalated into a civil war after his forces launched a brutal crackdown on dissent.

The war has since taken on strong sectarian overtones, pitting a Sunni-led insurgency that includes al-Qaida-inspired extremist groups against a government dominated by Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Foreign fighters and Islamic extremists have taken on an increasingly prominent role among the rebels, dampening the West’s support for the uprising against Assad.

The Syrian conflict has unleashed a humanitarian catastrophe and displaced some nine million people, a third of the pre-war population. More than 2.5 million Syrians have taken refuge in neighbouring countries, straining aid resources.

The United Nations refugee agency said Friday that the number of people forced from their homes worldwide has surged past 50 million for the first time since World War II. The massive increase was mainly driven by Syria’s war.

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