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Hezbollah & al-Qaeda clash in Syria near border with Lebanon Islamists take gas field from Syrian govt

BEIRUT, July 17, (Agencies): Hezbollah and the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda have fought a deadly five-day battle in Syria near the border with Lebanon, a Hezbollah source and a fighter for the Nusra Front said on Thursday. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim militant group that has fought alongside troops loyal to President Bashar al- Assad in Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year. al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front is a Sunni militia that considers all Shi’ites heretics deserving death. A Nusra Front member said Hezbollah had lost many fighters over the past few days during the clashes in Syria’s Qalamoun mountains.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah tried to enter Syria from two Shi’ite Lebanese villages on the border when they were ambushed by Nusra Front fighters. “We saw them trying to sneak in,” he said. “We waited for them, and when they arrived and before they were able to load their guns or rocket-propelled grenades, we attacked. Some of them escaped.” A Hezbollah source confirmed there had been an attack and said the group had lost three fighters during the Wednesday assault, upping the death toll to nine Hezbollah fighters killed in the area this week. The Nusra Front fighter said his units had lost “martyrs” but did not give a figure. A Lebanese security source said 26 Nusra Front fighters had been killed this week in the area of the fighting, 3 km (2 miles) from the Lebanese town of Arsal.

Syria’s war has been the battleground for a struggle between groups supported by Sunni Muslim states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Assad’s government which is backed by Shiite Iran. The conflict began with pro-democracy protests in 2011 and rapidly descended into sectarian civil war in which more than 170,000 people have been killed. According to the United Nations, 10.8 million Syrians now urgently need aid. Militant group the Islamic state seized a Syrian gas field and killed at least 23 people on Thursday in one of the bloodiest clashes between the al-Qaeda offshoot and President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, a monitoring group said.

The Islamic State has been making rapid gains in Syria in recent weeks, mostly by seizing territory from rival rebel groups using weaponry brought in from Iraq, where last month it managed to take large areas from government forces. Activists say the Syrian air force has in recent weeks stepped up attacks on positions held by the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Syria’s Kurds imposed compulsory military service for their men to ward off a push by Islamic extremists in the predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Syria, Kurdish officials said Thursday.

The move reflects fears among Syrian Kurds that the ongoing offensive by the Islamic State group in their region may potentially reverse gains made by their ethnic minority in the past three years. The Kurds - a long ostracized community in Syria - have made unprecedented gains amid the three-year-old civil war, carving out a semi-autonomous territory in the north as overstretched government troops abandoned the region to focus on defending Damascus, President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.

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