53 killed in Syria attack blamed on IS

DAMASCUS (AFP): At least 53 people were killed Friday in an ambush in central Syria blamed on the Islamic State group, state media reported, the deadiest attack by the jihadists in more than a year.

“Fifty-three citizens who were truffle hunting were killed during an attack by the terrorists of IS to the southwest of the town of Al-Sokhna” in the desert east of Homs, state television said.

The director of Palmyra hospital, Walid Audi, said those killed were 46 civilians and seven soldiers.

Audi told pro-government radio station Sham FM that their bodies had “been brought to the hospital after the ambush” that targeted dozens.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the attack, which it said was carried out by jihadists on motorcycles who opened fire on the truffle hunters.

The jihadist group did not immediately claim the attack on its usual channels.

It was the deadliest attack by IS since January last year when they stormed a prison in the Kurdish-controlled northeastern city of Hasakeh in a bid to free fellow jihadists.

The resulting fighting inside the city killed 105 people, mostly civilians, as well as 268 jihadists.

– US kills IS leader –

Separately on Friday, the US Central Command said four American military personnel were injured in a blast during a raid that killed a senior IS leader in Syria.

The IS leader, identified as Hamza al-Homsi, was killed, while the US troops and a working dog were being treated at an American medical facility in Iraq, it added.

Many people, including women and children, have been targeted in recent years while truffle hunting in central, northeastern and eastern areas of Syria.

Sixteen people, mostly civilians, were killed on Saturday in a similar attack targeting foragers in the same area, said the Observatory, which relies on a wide network of sources on the ground in Syria.

Dozens of others were kidnapped in the attack, the Observatory said, adding that 25 of them were released on Friday but the fate of the others remains unknown.

In April 2021, the extremist group launched a similar attack, abducting 19 people, mostly civilians, in the eastern countryside of Hama province.

The Observatory said that IS was taking advantage of  the annual harvest of desert truffles, which generally runs from February to April, to carry out attacks in remote locations.

After the jihadists lost their last scraps of territory following a military onslaught backed by a US-led coalition in March 2019, IS remnants in Syria mostly retreated to hideouts in the desert.

They have since used such hideouts to ambush Kurdish-led forces and Syrian government troops while continuing to mount attacks in neighbouring Iraq.

Syrian and Russian helicopters continue to launch air strikes targeting IS desert hideouts.

The United Nations has said that despite setbacks, the jihadist group has “maintained its ability to launch attacks at a steady pace”.

It estimates the jihadist group maintains between 6,000 and 10,000 fighters inside Iraq and Syria, exploiting the porous border between the two countries and concentrating mainly in rural areas.