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Nearly 250 dead in Islamic State attacks on south Syria

Majority Druze area of Sweida suffers worst attacks since 2011 with 246 people killed including 135 civilians, says monitor
A member of the Syrian security forces walking past a truck damaged in a suicide attack in the southern city of Sweida (AFP)

The death toll in coordinated Islamic State group suicide bombings and shootings in southern Syria rose to nearly 250 overnight, more than half of them civilians, a monitor said on Thursday.

Wednesday's attacks hit Sweida, a Druze-majority province mostly held by the government which had remained relatively insulated from the country's seven-year civil war.

The death toll climbed steadily throughout the day and into the night, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said.

"The toll is now 246 people dead, including 135 civilians," said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

The others killed were pro-government fighters or residents who had taken up arms to defend their villages. 

"The toll keeps rising as civilians who were wounded are dying and people who were unaccounted for are found dead," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The onslaught began with a triple suicide bombing in the city of Sweida, which was followed by attacks with guns and explosives on villages to its north and east. 

A fourth blast hit the provincial capital later in the day. 

IS claimed the assault hours later. At least 45 militants died carrying it out, the Observatory said.

It was the worst bloodshed to hit Sweida province since the civil war began in 2011.

Syrian state media reported deadly attacks on Sweida and surrounding villages but did not give a specific toll.

Government assault

The government of President Bashar al-Assad has in recent weeks ousted rebels from a majority of the country's south, part of which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The government controls almost all of Sweida province but IS retains a presence in desert areas of its north and east.

It is now closing in on a patch of territory in nearby Daraa province held by Jaish Khaled bin al-Walid, which has pledged allegiance to IS.

The group, which has around 1,000 fighters in the region, has been the target of an intense campaign of bombing by Russian and Syrian jets in recent days.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group made up mostly of ex-members of the former al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, also has a few hundred men in the south.

Israeli strikes

Israeli jets and artillery on Wednesday attacked a site in Syria from where two rockets were launched, which were thought to have landed in the Sea of Galilee, close to beachgoers, the military said.

After air raid sirens sounded in the south of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, the army said rockets had been fired from Syria towards Israel. They appeared to be stray fire from the fighting inside Syria.

"In response to the two rockets launched at Israeli territory from Syria, (Israeli) aircraft targeted the rocket launcher. The area surrounding it was targeted by artillery," an Israeli army statement said.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police units were searching in the waters of the Sea of Galilee for remnants of the rockets, although nothing had been found initially.

A Syrian military source accused Israel on Tuesday of firing at one of its warplanes as it carried out operations against IS in southern Syria. 

Israel's army earlier said it had shot down a Syrian fighter jet that had infiltrated Israeli airspace, risking another escalation in the sensitive border zone.

The Observatory later said air operations had dramatically decreased following the incident.

The Damascus government has long accused Israel of backing IS and other opposition factions.

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