‘Islamic State’ opens new deadly front in Syria province of Homs

Friday 08/05/2015
Heavy losses on both sides

BEIRUT - The Islamic State jihadist group has seized large parts of a strategically located town in Syria's central Homs province in clashes that killed 48 soldiers and militants, a monitor said Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the extremist group had captured areas of Al-Sukhnah and its surroundings in fighting that began overnight.

The town lies on the highway that leads from eastern Deir Ezzor province, an IS stronghold, to the ancient town of Palmyra.

Palmrya is controlled by the regime and home to spectacular Greco-Roman ruins that are listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

"The Islamic State managed to advance in Al-Sukhnah and take control of large parts of the town and the surrounding areas," the Britain-based Observatory said, adding that clashes were continuing Wednesday.

The group said at least 28 regime forces -- soldiers and pro-government militants -- and 20 IS fighters had been killed in the battles.

More than 100 fighters from both sides were wounded, the monitor said.

Located in central Syria, control of Homs province is divided.

The provincial capital is almost completely under regime control, but opposition forces and IS control large parts of the surrounding countryside and desert.

IS has a significant presence in the desert region in the east of the province bordering Deir Ezzor, which is a stronghold of the jihadist group and forms part of its self-proclaimed Islamic "caliphate" in Syria and Iraq.

Homs is Syria's largest province and is particularly important for the government as it also neighbours Damascus province, where the capital is located.

It is also home to the key Shaar gas field, which is now back in government hands after IS fighters overran it last year, reportedly slaughtering several hundred government troops there.