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30 dead as Islamic State attacks city in east Syria – Anti-IS fight going on as fast as possible: Pentagon official

An Iraqi man runs towards security forces while carrying his child, in Mosul’s southern Sumer neighbourhood on Jan 13, during an ongoing military operation against the militants. (AFP)

BEIRUT, Jan 14, (Agencies): The Islamic State group launched a ferocious assault Saturday on a city in eastern Syria, leaving more than 30 jihadists and regime fighters dead, a monitoring group said. At least 12 members of government forces and 20 IS militants were among the dead in the IS attack on regime positions in Deir Ezzor, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Both the Observatory and Syrian state news agency SANA said two civilians were also killed in IS rocket fire on government-controlled zones in the city. Around 200,000 people live in Deir Ezzor city, which has been besieged by IS since early 2015 and is the capital of the oil-rich province of the same name. IS has sought to overrun the entire city, including the key nearby military airport. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said Saturday’s attack was the “most violent” assault mounted by IS on the city in more than a year. He said IS was using tunnel bombs and suicide attackers, while Syrian and allied warplanes battered jihadist positions with air strikes.

“DAESH is amassing its forces to attack Deir Ezzor and breach government lines,” a Syrian military source told AFP, using the Arabic acronym for IS. He said jihadists had aimed to cut the route between the airport and the city, but that the government’s counter- attack had stopped IS. The US-led coalition attacking the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria would struggle to dramatically quicken the campaign, a top Pentagon official said Friday, amid mounting pressure to accelerate the fight. President-elect Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to “bomb the shit” out of IS, and on Thursday his pick for defense secretary, James Mattis, said operations could be intensified — especially in the push toward the jihadists’ stronghold of Raqa in Syria. But Elissa Slotkin, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said the pace of the Raqa campaign can only go as fast as the coalition-backed local forces on the ground.

Commanders “have a plan that I believe is pushing to the limit what we can do on intensifying that campaign,” said Slotkin, a political appointee who will not be working under Trump. In Syria, the coalition is providing weapons, training and air support to Kurdish and Arab forces as they work to push IS from Syria. Air strikes on a rebel-held town in northwestern Syria killed eight people on Saturday, a monitor said, the latest to hit the area where al-Qaeda’s former affiliate has a strong presence. Most of those killed in the Idlib province town of Maarat Masrin were civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Their deaths came after those of three civilians, one of them a child, in strikes on the nearby town of Orum al- Joz late on Friday, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said. He said the strikes were carried out by Russian or Syrian government aircraft. The US-led coalition too has carried out air strikes on targets in Idlib province in recent weeks. The Observatory says it determines whose planes carry out raids according to their type, location, flight patterns and the munitions involved. A ceasefire brokered by regime ally Russia and rebel ally Turkey that went into effect on December 30 has brought relative calm to most of the country. But it excludes former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham and its jihadist rival the Islamic State group. A freelance South African photojournalist has been kidnapped at gunpoint in northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border, his family and an aid organisation said in statements released on Saturday.

Shiraaz Mohamed was on his way out of the war-torn country on Tuesday when he and two employees from the South Africa-based Gift of The Givers charity were seized. The incident occurred at a hospital run by the charity in Darkouch, a town 100 kms (60 miles) from Aleppo, Syria’s second city. “When they passed the Gift of the Givers Al Hilal Hospital, two cars suddenly boxed them in,” Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the charity, said of the kidnapping in a text message sent to AFP. “They opened the doors, put a gun to the head of our two people and looked at Shiraaz.” According to Sooliman the kidnappers said that they had to question Mohamed because of “some misunderstanding” but then pledged that they would “return him in two days”.

All three had been blindfolded but the charity’s two workers were released. “When our two asked who they (the kidnappers) were, they said they represent all groups inside Syria,” Sooliman added. Mohamed’s family said they were devastated at the news and “praying for his safety and immediate release”. The Syrian political opposition said Saturday it supports planned peace talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey in the Kazakh capital later this month.

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