Syrian warplanes hit town seized by militants

By The Associated Press | Posted - Jun. 21, 2014 at 10:30 a.m.

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BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian army has carried out a series of airstrikes against a town in eastern Syria that was captured by fighters from an al-Qaida breakaway group a day earlier, killing 16 people, activists said Saturday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the warplanes pounded parts of Muhassan with six airstrikes, adding that the casualties included three civilians.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant stormed Muhassan along the Euphrates River on Friday, raising their black flags around the town after rebels from the Western-backed Supreme Military Council defected to the jihadi group activists said.

The town is in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq and where the Islamic State has been on the offensive since late April against rival jihadi and Islamic groups.

It comes as militants from the group seized an Iraqi crossing on the border with Syria after a daylong battle in which they killed some 30 Iraqi troops.

The capture of the Qaim border crossing deals a further blow to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has struggled to push back against Islamic extremists and allied militants who have seized large swaths of the country, including the second largest city Mosul, and who have vowed to march on Baghdad.

Sunni militants have carved out a large fiefdom astride the Iraqi-Syrian border and have long traveled back and forth with ease, but the control of crossings allows them to more easily move weapons and heavy equipment to different battlefields.

The Syrian army has stepped up its airstrikes against suspected Islamic State positions in Syria in recent days in an apparent attempt to relieve pressure on the Iraqi army fighting the group in neighboring Iraq.

Meanwhile, Syria's state-run news agency said a car bomb has exploded in a government-held part of the northern Syrian city of Hassakeh, killing at least three people and wounding several others. It said the car was driven by a suicide attacker.

Car bombs are common in the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against President Bashar Assad's rule but escalated into an insurgency and civil war with sectarian overtones. Opposition activists say more than 160,000 people have been killed, nearly a third of them civilians.

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