BEIRUT, May 14, (Agencies): The Islamic State jihadist group on Saturday overran a government-controlled hospital in eastern Syria, killing 20 members of pro-regime forces and taking medical staff hostage, a monitor said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the jihadists attacked Al-Assad hospital in Deir Ezzor as they press an advance to try to control the oil-rich city and its vital airbase.
The attack sparked clashes with regime forces providing security for the hospital in which six jihadists were also killed, the monitor said. “IS attacked Al-Assad hospital at the city’s western entrance, killing at least 20 soldiers and allied fighters,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman. The jihadists “seized the hospital and captured the medical staff, holding them hostage”, he said.
The jihadist group controls about 60 percent of Deir Ezzor, including the centre and the north of the city. It has imposed a siege on government-held districts in the south and east where about 200,000 civilians have been trapped since March 2014. The jihadists, who also control nearly all the surrounding province, have repeatedly attacked the government enclave and seized several neighbourhoods since the start of this year.
But their efforts to capture the airbase located in the south of the city have been crushed by elite regime troops. In the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory said, seven civilians including two children were killed over the previous 48 hours in rebel shelling of government-held western sectors. A ceasefire in the divided city expired on Wednesday at midnight.
The Observatory also reported heavy fighting on the edge of rebel-held Daraya, a town near Damascus under siege by government forces since 2012 and where the Red Cross was thwarted in an operation to deliver urgent humanitarian aid this week. Meanwhile, Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah on Saturday blamed Sunni extremists for killing its top military commander in Syria and vowed to keep fighting to defend President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The Islamist State (IS) jihadist group, meanwhile, overran a government-controlled hospital in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, killing 20 members of pro-regime forces and taking medical staff hostage, a monitor said. Hezbollah has deployed thousands of fighters in Syria where Mustafa Badreddine had led its intervention in support of Assad’s forces, which are also backed by Russia and Iran.
Badreddine, who was on a US terror sanctions blacklist and wanted by Israel, was killed in a blast on Thursday night near Damascus international airport. Hezbollah announced his death on Friday but without immediately apportioning blame, breaking with its usual pattern of accusing arch-foe Israel of responsibility. On Saturday, it said a probe had concluded that Sunni Islamist radicals known as “takfiris”, who consider Shiites to be heretics, had killed Badreddine.
“An investigation has shown that the blast that targeted one of our positions near the Damascus international airport that led to the martyrdom of the brother commander Mustafa Badreddine was caused by artillery bombardment carried out by takfiri groups present in that region,” a Hezbollah statement said. It did not name any specific group, and there has been no claim of responsibility.
Hezbollah has been battling opponents of Assad’s regime including Sunni extremists from IS and Al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate. A Syrian security source has told AFP that Badreddine was in a warehouse near the airport when it was rocked by a blast on Thursday night. No aircraft was heard before the explosion, the source said.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said no artillery fire had been heard in the area either in the past three days. In Deir Ezzor, IS attacked Al-Assad hospital on Saturday as it pressed an advance aimed at controlling all of the oil-rich city and its vital airbase, the Observatory said.
The attack sparked clashes with regime forces providing security for the hospital in which six jihadists were killed, the monitor said. “IS attacked Al-Assad hospital at the city’s western entrance, killing at least 20 soldiers and allied fighters,” Abdel Rahman said. The jihadists “seized the hospital and captured the medical staff, holding them hostage”, he said, adding that fighting was still raging. The jihadist group controls about 60 percent of Deir Ezzor, including the centre and the north of the city.
It has imposed a siege on government-held districts in the south and the east where about 200,000 civilians have been trapped since March 2014. In the northern city of Aleppo, where a ceasefire expired on Wednesday at midnight, the Observatory reported seven civilians killed in 48 hours of rebel shelling of government-held western sectors.
The Observatory also reported heavy fighting on the edge of rebel-held Daraya near Damascus, besieged by government forces since 2012 and where a Red Cross operation to deliver humanitarian aid this week was thwarted. Syria’s conflict has killed more than 270,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the repression of anti-government protests in 2011. US Secretary of State John Kerry was flying on Friday to Saudi Arabia to consult with his Arab ally ahead of international talks in Vienna on Tuesday aimed at salvaging teetering peace efforts.
In Hezbollah’s statement on Saturday, a day after thousands attended Badreddine’s funeral in Beirut, Hezbollah vowed no let-up in its war against those it describes as “criminal gangs” in Syria. Badreddine was a key suspect in the 2005 assassination in Beirut of Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri and was one of Israel’s “most wanted”. His predecessor, cousin and brother-in-law Imad Mughniyeh, was killed in Damascus in a 2008 bombing that Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Hezbollah has also accused Israel of killing another of its prominent figures, Samir Kantar, in an air strike last December near Damascus. Expert Waddah Charara says Hezbollah has sent between 5,000 and 6,000 combatants to Syria. Between 1,000 and 2,000 of its fighters have been killed in combat there, other experts say.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday commended Belgian leaders for a decision to begin carrying out air strikes in Syria against Islamic State, the Pentagon said in a statement. Elsewhere, two people were killed when a car exploded in the town of Qamishli in northeastern Syria on Saturday, around 10 days after local security services warned about a possible attack, a Syrian Kurdish official said. The media officer for Kurdish internal security force, the Asayish, Abdallah Saadoun, told Reuters the vehicle exploded in a car wash. One of the dead was a car wash worker and one was a Kurdish YPG militia fighter who was nearby, Saadoun said.
The YPG controls swathes of northeastern Syria including most of Hasaka province where Qamishli is. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said two people died and at least five were injured in the blast. Syrian state media said five people died in the explosion. Saadoun said the Asayish had warned citizens more than 10 days ago about a car which might enter the area carrying explosives. A suicide bomb blast at a checkpoint killed at least six members of the Kurdish internal security forces in Qamishli two weeks ago.
Hezbollah’s involvement in the conflicts in Syria and more recently Iraq risks a spillover of sectarian tensions into Lebanon where the Islamic State extremist group and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front are reported to be expanding, a UN envoy warned Friday. Terje Roed-Larsen expressed serious concern that not only have Hezbollah and other militias continued their activities since the Security Council ordered them to disband in 2004 “but if anything they have expanded.” He also expressed concern at the reported expansion of extremist groups, mostly in Palestinian refugee camps.
He called for the urgent disbanding of all militias in his final briefing to the council before stepping down on May 31 after 12 years, saying “their growing capabilities … represent a major and dangerous threat to Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability and political independence.” The Associated Press obtained the text of his closed briefing to the Security Council. Lebanon has a national unity government that includes Hezbollah, which has two Cabinet seats. But Hezbollah also has an armed wing that is stronger than the Lebanese national army and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, the European Union, and recently the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council.
The deployment of Hezbollah in Syria, backing President Bashar Assad, has widened the militant Shiite group’s circle of enemies beyond traditional foe Israel to include Sunni extremists and conservative Gulf monarchies. Lebanon also faces serious political and humanitarian challenges. Its parliament has failed to elect a president since May 2014 because of a lack of quorum amid political disagreements, and parliamentary elections have been postponed for security concerns linked to the conflict in neighboring Syria. Lebanon is currently hosting over one million Syrian refugees and 41,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria.
Roed-Larsen, who deals with implementation of the 2004 Security Council resolution that among other things calling for all militias operating in Lebanon to be disarmed and demobilized, urged international support for the country’s armed forces to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. He called on Hezbollah and other parties to implement Lebanon’s 2012 policy of “disassociation” from regional conflicts. He also urged Hezbollah and Israel to refrain from recent “provocative rhetoric” and abide by their obligations. As for the presidency, Roed-Larsen urged Lebanese leaders “to set aside their partisan differences” and elect a president without further delay.