DAMASCUS (AFP) – Fighters allied to Al-Qaeda tightened their grip on a Syrian border town Thursday, as President Bashar al-Assad claimed most of the rebels fighting his forces were linked to the extremist group.
Elsewhere in the violence-wracked country, a bomb attack on a bus in the central province of Homs killed nine civilians, adding to the more than 110,000 casualties of the 30-month conflict.
Fighting between members of Al-Qaeda front group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for control of the border town of Azaz broke out on Wednesday and carried on Thursday, various sources said.
Some residents said ISIS was in complete control of the town but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting was continuing in small pockets.
Azaz, on the Turkish border, was one of the first towns to be overrun, in July 2012, by Free Syrian Army rebels, who set up their own administration.
The fighting in Azaz began when ISIS fighters tried to kidnap a German doctor working there, according to the Syrian Observatory, which also said he is now in a safe location.
“There are attempts to mediate between the factions. Azaz is home to many people who fled (the nearby city of) Aleppo,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
“They want to live in a safe place, not one where anything that moves gets sniped.”
Tensions between some opposition groups and ISIS have spiralled in recent months, especially in northern Syria where the opposition controls vast swathes of territory.
Several local groups resent ISIS’s growing territorial control, its steady supply of arms, as well as its brutality, which opponents often compare to that of the regime’s.
ISIS, on the other hand, has accused some rebels affiliated with the FSA’s Supreme Military Command of collaborating with the West and of being “heretics”.
Assad, in a confident interview Wednesday with U.S. network Fox News, insisted Syria was not gripped by civil war but was the victim of infiltration by foreign-backed Al-Qaeda fighters.
“What we have is not civil war. What we have is war. It’s a new kind of war,” he said, alleging that Islamist guerrillas from more than 80 countries had joined the fight.
“We know that we have tens of thousands of jihadists… we are on the ground, we live in this country,” he said, after an expert report that suggested between 40 and 45 percent out of around 100,000 rebels were jihadists or hardline Islamists.
“What I can tell you is that… 80 to 90 percent of the underground terrorists are Al-Qaeda and their offshoots,” was Assad’s assessment.