ANKARA, Turkey – Fighting in northern Syria between Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and Islamic State militants killed at least 15 rebels as the opposition tried to push toward a town of symbolic importance for the extremists, an activist group and Turkish officials said Monday.
In central Syria, meanwhile, two suicide bombers struck in the city of Hama near an office of President Bashar Assad’s Baath party, killing two people and wounding at least 12, state news agency SANA said.
The agency report said a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-packed belt in Hama’s al-Assi Square Monday, and another suicide bomber struck 15 minutes later. SANA said one of the agency’s photographers, Ibrahim Ajaj, was wounded as he was covering the explosions, adding that he is in stable condition.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the two explosions killed two people and wounded 14.
IS later claimed responsibility through its Aamaq news agency, saying three suicide attackers carried out the assault.
Hama is Syria’s fourth largest city and has been relatively quiet in recent years. It’s firmly under the control of Assad’s forces. The twin bombings came as various insurgent groups have been on the offensive north of the city. Suicide attacks in government-held areas are not uncommon, but such blasts in the city of Hama have been rare.
The death toll among the Syrian rebels near the Turkish border is the highest since Turkey sent troops and tanks into Syria in August to help rebels re-take IS strongholds in the area and curb the advance of a Syrian Kurdish militia, which Ankara views as an extension of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists.
Turkish military officials said 15 Syrian opposition fighters were killed and about 35 wounded in the fighting, which seeks to capture seven residential districts south of the town of al-Rai. According to an emailed statement, “intense” clashes had taken place in the regions of Boztepe, Hardanah and Turkmen Bari.
The statement said the casualties occurred over the last 24 hours. The Turkish officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 21 rebels were killed and more than two dozen wounded, adding that many of the casualties were due to land mines and booby-traps planted by the extremists near the village of Turkmen Bari.
The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said the Turkey-backed rebels are trying to reach the town of Dabiq.
Dabiq occupies a central place in IS propaganda, which claims the town will be the site of a climactic battle between the forces of Christianity and Islam. The extremists named their online magazine after the town, which they have occupied since August 2014.
According to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, IS has been preparing for the battle in Dabiq for weeks, planting mines and explosives and sending some of its most experienced fighters to defend the town.
Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian government warplanes carried out more airstrikes around the country, mostly in eastern rebel-held neighbourhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest urban centre and former commercial hub.
Also Monday, a medical relief group and the Observatory said airstrikes have damaged and put of service one of Syria’s most secure hospitals, which had been dug into a mountain.
The International Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, or UOSSM, said the Dr. Hasan Al-Araj Hospital — also known as “Cave Hospital” and located in the central province of Hama — was struck twice on Sunday.
The Observatory said Russian warplanes carried out the attacks that hit the hospital, near the central village of Kfar Zeita, adding that it’s one of the largest hospitals in rebel-held parts of the country. UOSSM said there were minor injuries from the attack.
Dr. Abdallah Darwish, the hospital’s director and health care chief in Hama province, was quoted in the UOSSM statement as saying that the hospital was likely struck by “bunker buster” missiles as it is “well-fortified in a cave and impervious to previous attacks.”
The bomb completely destroyed the hospital’s emergency ward and caused major damage throughout the hospital, he said.
Syrian and Russian warplanes have been blamed for a series of attacks that have damaged hospitals and clinics in rebel-held parts of Syria, mostly in Aleppo.
Dr. Khaula Sawah, CEO of UOSSM USA, said the situation in Syria is becoming “more and more dire as every day passes.”
“These vicious and atrocious campaigns are literally choking the life out of civilians, they are deplorable and unacceptable,” she said. “We demand the international community and all responsible parties put an immediate stop to this before it is too late.”
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.