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'Islamic State' starts major offensive in eastern Syria

The jihadist group has begun an attack on regime-controlled areas of the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, reportedly killing dozens of people. It comes as opposition groups said they still support peace talks on January 23.

A series of strong explosions shook the eastern Syrian city of Deir el-Zour on Saturday as "Islamic State" (IS) militants clashed with the army and its allies, and Syrian planes bombed the jihadist forces, the UK-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory said.

The IS launched a multipronged attack on the city, while also pushing on the area around its military airport, according to a Hezbollah media outlet. The Observatory, which is monitoring the Syrian conflict using a network of activists on the ground, said dozens had been killed in the clashes. In contrast, Syrian state television reported that the IS shelling killed three and wounded nine in government-controlled districts.

City under siege

The IS previously amassed reinforcements, ammunition and fuel around the city, the Observatory said.

Syria's Deir el-Zour province borders Iraq, and links the IS' de facto capital of Raqqa with IS-controlled areas in Iraq. The Islamist militia controls most of the province and parts of the city, and has kept some 200,000 people living in government-controlled areas under siege since early 2015. The Damascus forces and their Russian allies have been supplying the area with food, weapons, and medicine via airdrops

Saturday's attack marks the largest battle since January 2016, when the group claimed new ground in the city and killed many pro-government militiamen.

Opposition backs peace talks

The assault came as Syria's political opposition said it supported planned peace talks in the Kazakh capital later this month.

In a statement released on Saturday, The High Negotiations Committee said it hoped the meeting in Astana, brokered by Russia and Turkey, "would reinforce the truce" and "establish a phase of confidence" towards implementing a UN Security Council Resolution aimed ending sieges of Syrian towns and cities.

The HNC recently threatened to back out of peace talks over what it said were ongoing violations of a temporary ceasefire.

While most of pro-government and rebel groups respect the nationwide truce on Syrian territory, the accord does not include the IS or the Fatah al-Sham group, formerly known as the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front.

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'The conflict will continue for years'

Aid worker kidnapped

Also on Saturday, the Observatory reported that eight people, most of them civilians, were killed in airstrikes on a town controlled by Fatah al-Sham in the Idlib province. The activists also reported that government forces launched an attack on IS forces near the ancient city of Palmyra, which was reclaimed by the Islamists last month. 

On the same day, an aid group reported that gunmen had kidnapped a South African citizen, Shiraaz Mohamed, earlier this week.

dj,mm/tj (AP, Reuters)

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