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IS extends territorial gains in parts of Syria – monitor 9 killed in Idlib raid

BEIRUT, July 4, (Agencies): Around 30 Islamic State fighters broke out of a makeshift jail where rival Syrian Islamists had been holding them, a monitoring group said on Friday as it detailed the latest territorial gains by the al Qaeda offshoot. The insurgents demolished a wall to escape the building — a former school — after fellow Islamic State fighters took control of al-Hawaaj village where al Qaeda loyalists had been holding them, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. In the same province on Thursday, Islamic State seized control of Syria’s largest oil field from the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s official wing in Syria, consolidating its position in the eastern Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq. Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq, includes thousands of foreign fighters and has become the main recruiting magnet for jihadi volunteers from Europe and North Africa.

The Observatory said the 30 fighters that escaped on Friday were all Syrian. The group is now considered the most potent insurgent band in Syria and its rivals complain that it spends more time fighting them than Syrian army forces. It also captured the villages of Quniya and Buqris in the Deir al-Zor province from Nusra late on Thursday, the Observatory said. The villages are close to the town of Mayadin, which Islamic State seized earlier in the day. The Observatory, an anti-Assad group which tracks the violence, said the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now controls an area of Syria five times the size of neighbouring Lebanon. In Deir al-Zor province, only the regional capital and airport - still held by Syrian government forces - and a few villages remain outside Islamic State’s control. In the north, the group took the village of Zor Maghar, close to the Kurdish city of Ain al-Arab, after three days of fighting with Kurdish forces, the Observatory said. Ain al-Arab, known as “Kobani” in Kurdish, is in Syria’s Aleppo province, strategically placed on the border with Turkey.

Elsewhere in Syria, the regime air force kept up its air raids Friday against rebel areas, mainly in the southern province of Daraa, Aleppo, Damascus province and Idlib. On Thursday, nine people were killed in a raid on the opposition-held village of Maaret Masirin in Idlib province, the Observatory said. Syria’s war began in March 2011 as a peaceful movement demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, but morphed into a conflict after a brutal crackdown by the regime. Many months into the fighting, jihadists started to pour into Syria, drawing warnings from analysts of an eventual regional conflagration.

Elsewhere, Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member UN Security Council on Thursday that seeks to boost cross-border humanitarian access in Syria but it was not immediately clear if Russia and China would support the move.

After more than a month of negotiations with the permanent veto-wielding council members — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — the draft text will now be discussed with the remaining elected members next week, diplomats said. Western members have tried to reach a compromise with Russia - a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — and China by using language in the draft similar to that used in a unanimously adopted resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons.

Russia, supported by China, has already vetoed four resolutions threatening any action against Assad’s government amid a three-year civil war that has killed at least 150,000 people. The draft resolution threatens measures, such as sanctions, against any Syrian party who does not comply with the council’s demands for the immediate and unhindered delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the country. This would mean that for any action to be taken, the Security Council would need to agree on a second resolution.

Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan drafted the text as a follow-up to their unanimously adopted February resolution on aid access in Syria, which has failed to make a difference. The United Nations says some 10.8 million people in Syria need help, of which 4.7 million are in hard-to-reach areas, while another three million have fled the conflict.

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