DAMASCUS, Syria: At least 28 people were killed in an attack on a bus along a main highway in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province that borders Iraq. Local residents and defectors said it was an ambush on an army vehicle.
There were no more details of the incident in an area where mostly Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias are based, near the ancient city of Palmyra.
A senior military defector in the area said the vehicle carried soldiers and pro-government militias who had finished their leave and were on their way back to their base in the desolate, sparsely populated area.
Another source said at least 30 soldiers were killed, mostly from the Syrian army’s elite Fourth Brigade, which has a strong presence in the rich oil-producing province since Islamic State fighters were ousted at the end of 2017.
Deir al-Zor residents and intelligence sources say there has been a rise in recent months of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks by remnants of Islamic State militants who hid in caves in the mainly desert region.
28 Syrian soldiers killed in an ISIS ambush on Palmyra-DeirEzzor road, deadliest attack for a long long time, the area has seen scattered attacks but nothing of this magnitude. pic.twitter.com/uoeP0MwcQV
— Danny Makki (@Dannymakkisyria) December 30, 2020
They also say in the last few months, Arab tribes who inhabit the area have been angered by executions by Iranian militias operating in the area of dozens of nomads suspected of affiliation to militants.
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based war monitor, said that the death toll was 37, including soldiers from the army’s elite 4th division and militiamen as they were travelling home for the holidays.
IS claimed responsibility for the attack on Thursday through the group’s Amaq news service, claiming it killed 40 Syrian army soldiers and badly wounded six others.
The state news agency Sana said 25 citizens were killed and 13 injured. It did not mention how the attack was carried out but claimed it was a terrorist attack.
Syrian state media rarely admits military casualties.
IS militants set up a checkpoint on the road, then detonated the roadside bombs they had laid out, before opening fire on the bus, the war monitor said. Two other buses in the convoy managed to escape.
Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of SOHR, told news agencies that the ambush “was one of the deadliest attacks” since the fall of IS.
Despite the group’s territorial defeat in March 2019, IS sleeper cells continue to launch attacks, mostly in the vast stretches of desert between Homs and Deir al-Zor and near the Iraq border.
The attack took place on the road that connects the ancient city of Palmyra to Deir al-Zor. According to Sana, it was in the Kobajjep area in southeastern Deir al-Zor province.
The area is where the mostly Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias are based.
IS fighters frequently clash with forces loyal to Bashar al Assad in the area, but attacks of this magnitude have not been seen in over two years.
Deir al-Zor residents and intelligence sources said there has been a rise in recent months of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks by the remnant pockets of IS fighters.
Over the last few months, the local tribes have also been angered by executions that Iranian militias are committing in the area of dozens of nomads suspected to have an affiliation to armed groups, they added.
Analysts claim that Wednesday night’s attack is further evidence of Damascus’ inability to contain IS.