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IS group seizes last Iraq border crossing held by Syrian regime

A Syrian border guard supervises Iraqi refugees waiting at the al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq on 10 November 2007
A Syrian border guard supervises Iraqi refugees waiting at the al-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq on 10 November 2007 AFP /Louai Beshara

The Islamic State (IS) group has seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq held by the Syrian government, a monitoring group said Thursday, a day after IS militants captured the city of Palmyra in a major blow to Damascus.

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“IS seized control of the al-Tanf border crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border ... after regime forces withdrew, leaving the Syrian regime with no control over its border with Iraq," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Iraqi officials said their security forces had also withdrawn from the Iraqi side of the crossing, known as al-Waleed. It was not immediately clear when the IS group took control of the border post.

An Islamic State fighter contacted by Reuters confirmed the group had taken control of the crossing.

The Islamist group also controls a border crossing between the Syrian province of Deir al-Zor and Iraq's Anbar province, while a border crossing between the two countries in northeastern Syria is controlled by a Kurdish militia known as the YPG.

The al-Tanf crossing is in Syria’s Homs province and about 240 kms (150 miles) from Palmyra, known as Tadmur in Arabic, which was captured by the IS group from government forces on May 20.

Islamic State fighters tightened their grip on the 2,000-year-old metropolis on Thursday while the group also made advances in Iraq, overrunning Iraqi government defences east of Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, which they seized five days earlier.

The twin successes not only pile pressure on both Damascus and Baghdad but also cast doubt on the US strategy of relying almost exclusively on air strikes to support the fight against the Islamists.

US and coalition forces have conducted 18 air strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq since Wednesday, the US military said.

>>> Read more: A new brute takes over Palmyra’s notorious Tadmur Prison <<<

IS group controls 'more than half' of Syria

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the militants' victory in Palmyra means they now hold sway over more than half of Syria. T

Much of the Syrian territory held by the IS group is uninhabited dessert in the centre of the country, with Syria’s main cities – including the capital, Damascus – located on its western flank along the border with Lebanon and on the coast.

However, the militant group controls most of Syria's oil and gas fields, and is using the income to fund its expansion. It now also has a springboard from which to make further territorial gains, analysts say.

"IS now dominates central Syria, a crossroads of primary importance" that could allow it to take more territory from government forces, said Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on Syria. 

"Taking Palmyra opens the way to Damascus and Homs. Eventually, this axis can be threatened," Balanche said.

IS militants have recently threatened a number of regime strongholds, including Deir Ezzor city in the east and military airports in the north and south.

"The capture of Palmyra leaves IS strongly placed to make more territorial gains from [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad at a time when the government is heavily occupied in the north and south," said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

Also on Thursday, a Syrian priest and his colleague were kidnapped from a monastery between Homs and Palmyra, the French NGO L'Oeuvre d'Orient said. Father Jacques Mourad was preparing aid for an influx of refugees from Palmyra and was known to help both Christians and Muslims.

Executions, fears for antiquities

Concern is mounting for the fates of both Palmyra’s residents and its treasure troves of antiquities.

The UN human rights office in Geneva said a third of Palmyra’s 200,000 residents may have fled the fighting in the past few days.

But UN spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani also said there were reports of government forces preventing civilians from leaving, although state media said the pro-government National Defense Forces had evacuated civilians before withdrawing.

“ISIL (Islamic State group) has reportedly been carrying out door-to-door searches in the city, looking for people affiliated with the government,” Shamdasani said. “At least 14 civilians are reported to have been executed by ISIL in Palmyra this week.”

The ultra-hardline group has destroyed antiquities in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.

The UN cultural agency UNESCO describes the site as a historical crossroads between the Roman Empire, India, China and ancient Persia, and a testament to the world’s diverse heritage. Syria's antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim urged the world to "mobilise" to save the treasures.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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