An al Qaeda branch active in Syria's restive town of Albu Kamal pledged loyalty on Wednesday to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL), the Islamist group seizing vast tracts of Iraqi territory, a monitoring group said.
Albu Kamal lies near the border with Iraq and close to the Iraqi town of Abu Qaim, which was seized by ISIS Islamists earlier this week.
The merger is significant as it opens the way for ISIS to control areas of both sides of the frontier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
ISIS has said that its aim is to establish an Islamic state that straddles both Iraq and Syria.
ISIS fighters launched a lightning offensive on June 9 that quickly captured Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul, Tikrit and several other towns to the north and west of Baghdad.
After months of clashes between ISIS and rival jihadist group al Nusra (Jabhat al Nusra or the Nusra Front) in parts of Syria, al Nusra's Albu Kamal branch "pledged loyalty to ISIS", according to the observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
Originally a branch of al Qaeda, ISIS broke with the global terrorist network in June of last year. Al Nusra now operates as al Qaeda's official branch in Syria.
He said the move comes amid ISIS advances in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, where Albu Kamal is located.
An ISIS jihadist confirmed the reports on Twitter, posting a photo showing an Egyptian al Nusra commander shaking hands with an ISIS leader of Chechen origin.
"They are rivals, but both groups are jihadist and extremists. This move will create tension now with other rebel groups, including Islamists, in the area," Rahman said.
An opposition activist in Albu Kamal told AFP that "there is a lot of tension, and the situation is only going to get worse".
Using a pseudonym for security reasons, Hadi Salameh also said the merger would "cause a big problem with the local tribes, who will not welcome this change".
Another activist said the move comes days after local rebel brigades who had been working with al Nusra signed a declaration demanding that it take a clear stance against ISIS.
"The loyalty oath (to ISIS) comes after tension between al Nusra and the local rebels," said Abdel Salam al-Hussein.
He also said hundreds of thousands of people, including displaced families from neighbouring Iraq as well as flashpoint areas in Syria, are now living in Albu Kamal, saying that it would be a "catastrophe" if fighting broke out in the town.
"ISIL fighters are now positioned at the entrance of Albu Kamal, on the Iraqi side," Hussein said.
A spokesman for rebels in Syria's Deir Ezzor province, Omar Abu Leyla, warned that "Albu Kamal is a red line." If ISIS fighters cross over from Iraq, he said the mainstream opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) "will fight them".
Opposition rebels fighting both ISIS and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad distributed amateur video footage of a rebel parade in Albu Kamal, which Abu Leyla described as a warning to the jihadists positioned just across the border.
Abu Leyla also complained that "the FSA has received no external support at all, even though we are fighting ISIL".
The Syrian air force on Wednesday raided the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa in the north of the country and Muhassen in the east.
The Assad regime has rarely targeted ISIS-held areas, but attacks were stepped up after the group's Sunni militants launched the offensive in Iraq and seized control of vast areas of the country.
Activists said only one of the airstrikes hit the ISIS headquarters in the city while others targeted other areas, including a market. At least 12 people were reportedly killed.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)
Date created : 2014-06-25