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IS expels thousands in east Syria

BEIRUT, July 6, (Agencies): The jihadist Islamic State group has expelled more than 30,000 people from their homes in the eastern Syrian town of Shuheil, a monitoring group said on Sunday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said IS had “forced out” some 30,000 residents after seizing Shuheil on Thursday from al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front. Another 30,000 residents have been forced from their homes in the towns of Khosham and Tabia Jazeera, also in eastern Deir Ezzor province, the Britain-based NGO said. “Some 30,000 residents of the town of Shuheil, the former stronghold of Al-Nusra Front, have been forced out by the Islamic State,” the group said. Though both IS and Al-Nusra share a jihadist ideology, the two groups have regularly clashed, with Al-Nusra joining a coalition of armed opposition groups fighting IS.

IS has seized large swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, declaring the land it holds to be an Islamic “caliphate”, and its leader the ruler of all Muslims. The Observatory said IS had prevented some 30,000 people from returning to their homes in two other towns in Deir Ezzor, Khosham and Tabia Jazeera, which it captured in late June. On a Facebook page, activists from Shuheil said IS had ordered all residents to leave, and entered in armoured cars and tanks “because of their fear and cowardice”. A video distributed by activists on YouTube purportedly shows mediators announcing the terms of the expulsion, saying residents are required to hand over weapons and remain out of Shuhail “until (IS) feels it is safe”.

Activists said residents feared IS fighters planned to loot their homes, and the Observatory said the large displacement had left thousands sleeping in the open, with food and water shortages. Elsewhere in the region, the group said negotiations were under way over the fate of some 83,000 people living in three towns in Deir Ezzor after IS advances in the surrounding area. Syrian warplanes, meanwhile, bombed gunmen inside Lebanese territory on Sunday on the border between the two countries, Lebanon’s official National News Agency reported. There were no immediate reports of casualties. “Syrian warplanes targeted groups of gunmen in the Wadi al-Khayl area in Arsal firing four rockets,” the news agency said. Shortly afterwards, Syrian aircraft carried out two further raids in the same area, it added.

The Lebanese army confirmed air strikes in “border areas” but made no mention of their target. The town of Arsal and the area around it are largely Sunni Muslim, and residents sympathise with the Sunni-led uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The border is long and porous, and has proved an easy crossing point for smugglers, refugees and fighters. In April, Syrian forces backed by allied fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah retook control of most of the Qalamun region, just across the border from Arsal. But Syrian activists say hundreds of opposition fighters have taken refuge in the caves and hills in the border area, using it as a rear base from which to launch attacks inside Syria. Wounded fighters are also brought to the area, and food, medicines and weapons are smuggled through it, activists say. Two weeks ago, Lebanese army forces carried out raids in the area targeting militants with ties to “terrorist groups,” an army statement said.

The Western-backed Syrian opposition group will begin a three-day meeting in Istanbul later Sunday to elect a new president and discuss the offensive by Islamic militants straddling Iraq and Syria, an official with the group said. The meeting comes amid reports that 150,000 people have been displaced from their homes in eastern Syria by jihadi fighters who captured wide areas of the eastern province of Deir el-Zour in the past weeks.

Mustafa Osso said the Syrian National Coalition will pick a replacement for its current president, Ahmad al-Jarba, in a vote expected on Tuesday. He said the top two candidates for the job are senior coalition members Hadi Bahra and Muwaffaq Nairabiyeh, who belong to Jarba’s Democratic bloc. Jarba, who was elected in July of last year has already served two six-month terms — the maximum period allowed by the coalition. A statement by the group said that in addition to a vote for a new president, the coalition will also elect three vice presidents, a secretary general and a political committee. The statement said the coalition will be “discussing the military changes in Syria and the region in general, and its impact on the course of revolution.”

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