Rebels retake two Syrian towns on Turkish border from Islamic State

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Syrian opposition rebels on Saturday regained two northern villages close to the Turkish border from Islamic State, in a setback to the extremist militia, a monitoring group reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the recapture of the villages of Dalhah and Harjala on the northern outskirts of the Aleppo province followed heavy fighting between rebels and Islamic State insurgents.

“This is an important development because it shows that Islamic State is losing ground in areas near the Syrian-Turkish border,” the Observatory’s head, Rami Abdel-Rahman, told dpa.

Abdel-Rahman said rebels, including ethnic Turkmen fighters, carried out a surprise attack against the hardline jihadist movement.

The attack came days after US Secretary of State John Kerry said that his country plans to work with fellow NATO ally Turkey to close off Islamic State from the last piece of territory it holds along the Syrian-Turkish border.

Turkey’s state news agency Anadolu reported that Dalhah and Harjala had been regained by Turkmen militias and that 70 Islamic State fighters had been killed in the fight.

The agency also reported that joint US and Turkish airstrikes backed the rebels on the ground.

Syrian Activist Omar al-Halabi, based near Aleppo, confirmed that US-led coalition jets had targeted the area before and during the rebels’ ground assault.

“It was the frist time we could see such a heavy aerial activity in the area,” he told dpa by phone.

Turkey said on Friday it had summoned the Russian ambassador to Ankara to lodge a complaint over airstrikes in northern Syria.

The strikes allegedly hit an area controlled by Turkmen rebels backed by Turkey.

Ankara and Moscow are at odds in Syria, where Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey is a strong backer of various rebel groups.

Russia started airstrikes against Islamic State and other extremists groups in Syria on September 30.

Around 1,331 people, including more than 400 civilians, have since been killed in Russian airstrikes in Syria, according to the Observatory.

Islamic State has since August advanced in areas controlled by moderate rebels in the countryside of Aleppo, including Dalhah and Harjala.

In recent months, the al-Qaeda splinter group has made territorial gains in several parts of Syria.

The US-led coalition and Russia have separately stepped up airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria in the past weeks, after the radical group claimed responsibility for a series of attacks around the world.

Meanwhile, at least 36 people were killed overnight in more than 70 airstrikes believed to have been mounted by Russian warplanes, in eastern Syria’s province of Deir al-Zour, the Observatory said.

The Britain-based watchdog said dozens of oil tanks were also destroyed in the oil-rich province, controlled by Islamic State.

The militant group, which rules large parts in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, uses revenues from illegal oil sales to fund its activities.

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