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Syria: Dozens killed in ambush on 'bus carrying soldiers' in Deir Ezzor

UK-based activist group says Islamic State carried out attack targeting troops as they travelled home for holidays
Deir Ezzor residents and intelligence sources said there had been a rise in recent months of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks on government forces by remnants of Islamic State (File pic/AFP)

At least 25 people were killed in an attack on a bus along a main highway in Syria's Deir Ezzor province that borders Iraq, Syrian state media said on Wednesday, an incident that various sources said was an ambush on an army vehicle.

The official news agency SANA reported that a "terrorist attack" on a bus in the Kabajeb area, on the road between Deir Ezzor and Palmyra, had killed 25 people and wounded 13.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said Islamic State (IS) had targeted soldiers in the attack as they travelled home for holidays, killing 37 of them.

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A senior military defector in the area also told Reuters that the vehicle had been carrying soldiers and pro-government militias who had finished their leave

"It was one of the deadliest attacks since the fall of the IS caliphate" last year, Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman told AFP.

Abdel Rahman said the bus was attacked near the village of Shula by fighters who detonated roadside bombs before opening fire on soldiers who belonged to the army's elite 4th division.

The brigade has had a strong presence in the rich oil-producing province since IS were ousted from the area at the end of 2017.

The Observatory said eight officers were among 37 soldiers killed, with 12 others wounded, adding that some of those injured were in "critical condition".

Two other buses that were part of the convoy managed to escape, the Observatory said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.

Final victory

Deir Ezzor residents and intelligence sources told Reuters there had been a rise in recent months of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks on government forces by remnants of IS who hid in caves in the mainly desert region.

The sources also said that in the last few months, Arab tribes who inhabit the area have been angered by the execution of dozens of nomads by Iranian militias, who suspected the nomads of being affiliated with militants.

In December 2017, Iraq's then prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced a final victory against IS, and the group lost the last shred of their so-called caliphate in Syria in March 2019.

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But sleeper cells have retained their ability to strike despite losing the territory they once held in both Iraq and Syria, operating mostly in the vast desert between the two countries.

In recent months, Syria's Badia desert has been the scene of regular clashes between the fighters and Russian-backed Syrian regime forces.

In April, 27 fighters loyal to the Damascus government and allied Iran-backed militiamen were killed in an IS attack near the desert city of Al-Sukhna, which is under government control.

The war in Syria has killed more than 387,000 people since it started in 2011, the Observatory says.

The dead include more than 130,500 pro-government fighters, among them foreigners.

Since March 2019, more than 1,300 Syrian soldiers and allied pro-Iranian militiamen and over 600 IS fighters have been killed, according to the Observatory.

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