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Syrian conflict

Huge explosion kills 23 at Syria jihadist base used by Chinese Uygurs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 10:41am
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 9:07pm

An explosion at a base for Asian jihadists in northwestern Syria’s Idlib city on Sunday killed 23 people including civilians, a monitor said.

Extremist groups fighting in Syria count thousands of Asians among their ranks, many from central Asian states and members of the Muslim Uygur ethnic minority of China’s Xinjiang province.

“A large explosion on Sunday evening hit the base of the Ajnad al-Qawqaz faction in Idlib,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syria says up to 5,000 Chinese Uygurs are fighting with rebels

He did not say how many of the victims were civilians or specify the cause of the huge blast, but activists on social media said a car bomb was responsible.

The blast ignited fires, damaged buildings and overturned several cars along a wide avenue in the city, according to photos and video posted by the activist-run Thiqa News Agency and Baladi News Agencies. Ambulances and fire brigades were seen rushing to the scene.

Dozens were also injured, particularly fighters, according to Abdel Rahman who said the base was “almost completely destroyed” and that surrounding buildings also sustained damage.

Initial reports said 18 were killed but the death toll quickly rose to 23. Dozens were reported wounded, and at least 35 were brought to one of the city’s hospitals, according to Mohammad al-Shaghal, a medical technician.

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The Ajnad al-Qawqaz group includes hundreds of foreign fighters and is battling alongside the Fateh al-Sham Front, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, to repel a Syrian regime advance in the southeast of Idlib province.

The explosion came hours after the Syrian military announced it had recaptured a strategically important town in eastern Idlib. The state-affiliated Al-Ikhbariya TV says government forces took Sinjar on Sunday.

The Observatory said the advance “opens the road” for the government troops to march on the rebel-held Abu Zuhour airbase, about 19km, to the north.

The area has seen intense clashes aimed at seizing a strategically vital highway between Damascus and second city Aleppo.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists across Syria, said regime forces had seized more than 60 villages in the area since December 25.

An alliance dominated by Fateh al-Sham controls much of Idlib province where there are regular car bombings, often blamed on disputes between armed factions.

Some residents blame Islamic State for such attacks, although the group has no open presence in the province. The military has assigned one of its top commanders to lead the offensive into Idlib, the last major stronghold for rebels in northern Syria.

The Idlib offensive carries significant risks.

The UN says more than 2.5 million people are currently living in Idlib, including more than 1 million displaced by fighting from other parts the Syria.

A full-blown government offensive could cause large-scale destruction and massive displacement.

Turkey, a supporter of the rebels, has deployed military observers in the province as part of a de-escalation deal with Iran and Russia, but that has not stopped the fighting on the ground or Russian air strikes against the insurgents.

It is not clear how far the current offensive aims to reach, and recapturing the entire province is expected to be a long and bloody process. Opposition activists say the main target for now appears to be the sprawling rebel-held airbase of Abu Zuhour, on the southeastern edge of the province, and securing the Damascus-Aleppo road.

Additional reporting by Associated Press