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Islamic State presses Syria offensive, targets two key government garrisons

A week after seizing a major oilfield in an offensive that left 270 Syrian government soldiers dead, the extremist Islamic State on Thursday targeted two more key government garrisons, posting photos on the Internet of headless bodies the group claims had been soldiers killed in the attacks.

Among the dead, anti-government activists told McClatchy, were Gen. Samir Aslan, the head of military intelligence in Raqqa province, and Gen. Miziad Salameh, the commander of Regiment 121, a major military installation in Hasaka province.

The Islamist forces also launched attacks on government garrisons in Hasaka city and in Deir el Zour, further south.

The death toll from the confrontations was uncertain, but at least 30 soldiers were killed when Islamic State forces overran Division 17, a unit of about 300 based a half-mile outside of Raqqa, the Islamists’ administrative capital and the only Syrian provincial capital not in government hands. The base was the largest military facility in eastern Syria still controlled by the government, according to the anti-government Raqqa Media Center.

In Hasaka province, the Islamic State forces succeeded in overrunning part of a base belonging to Regiment 121. As many as 10 soldiers died there after Islamic State forces attacked from three sides, anti-government activists reported.

The pitched battles on multiple fronts were the latest sign that the Islamic State, which previously had avoided direct confrontations with the Syrian army, is now pressing to expel units loyal to President Bashar Assad from the area where it has declared an Islamic caliphate. Previously, the Islamic State and the Syrian army rarely fought, leading some anti-Assad rebel groups to accuse the Islamists of working with the Assad government. But whatever accommodation had existed between the two forces, if there were one, clearly has been abandoned now.

The Islamist State said that its attack on Division 17 outside Raqqa began late Wednesday with the detonation of two suicide bombs. By Thursday morning, the Islamic State had captured the headquarters of one of the division’s battalions and had taken control of a strategic hilltop inside the base.

The government responded by shelling the city of Raqqa and firing two SCUD missiles from the Qalamoun area north of Damascus toward Raqqa. Neither missile did any damage, however; one exploded in midair and the other landed harmlessly in an empty area.

Opposition sources in Raqqa said government planes launched 13 air attacks on the city and the Division 17 base. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based opposition group that monitors violence in Syria, said that at least 35 Islamic State fighters had been killed or injured. It said the dead and wounded Islamists were taken by ambulance to hospitals in Raqqa.

In Hasaka province, in the country’s northeast, government forces in Hasaka city were placed on alert after word of the attack on Regiment 121 circulated. Activists reported that roads leading in to and out of the provincial capital were blocked and fresh checkpoints were thrown up. Still, Islamist forces managed to storm the headquarters in the city of Assad’s Baath party and capture or kill an undetermined number of military and civic leaders. Activists said fierce fighting raged throughout the city late Thursday.

Government positions were not the only target of the Islamic State. Masar Press, an opposition news outlet, said the Islamic State also targeted Kurdish fighters in Hasaka, killing an undetermined number.

In nearby Qamishli, activists reported that a huge explosion, apparently the work of the Islamic State, devastated the local headquarters of military intelligence.

By comparison, the clashes in Deir el Zour were relatively minor. The Islamic State, however, had dispatched reinforcements to surround the city’s military airport, but those forces had not attacked the facility.

Syria’s official media, which is devoting most of its attention to the Israeli “aggression” in Gaza, ignored the Islamic State offensive. But government supporters took to social media to demand that the government launch efforts to rescue both Division 17 and the city of Hasaka.

Activists close to the Islamic State posted on Twitter that the offensives involved 1,400 fighters _ 600 in Raqqa and 800 in Hasaka.

Hammam al Raqqa, an Islamic State activist who was reached via Skype, told McClatchy from Raqqa that after the Islamists “clean” Raqqa, Hasaka and Deir el Zour of regime forces, the jihadis would target Homs and Damascus to the east. Hammam said that the government resistance to Thursday’s attacks had been very strong but that it had been overcome by suicidal fighters who “came to die.”

He said that most of the fighters involved in the attack were from Azerbaijan and Chechnya, with a few Syrians and Saudis.

Islamist State sympathizers on Twitter blamed U.S.-backed moderate rebels for the delay in the fall of the Assad government, which has withstood more than three years of civil war.

“If they (moderate rebels) only obeyed the Islamic State from the beginning, it would have liberated the whole of Syria,” read one tweet. “Islamic State said to them from the beginning: leave us alone to face the infidels . . . but it was ‘the damnation’ of the dollar ‘that prevented them.’”