BEIRUT (AP) — Mainstream Syrian rebels are battling Islamists suspected of links to the Islamic State group in a southern province near the Israeli-held Golan Heights, with at least 29 people killed in days of clashes, a spokesman and activists said Wednesday.
The IS group is not known to have a significant presence in southern Syria.
However, Isam al-Rayess, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army's Southern Front, said a group known as Jihad Units ambushed some of his fighters in the Quneitra province who were on their way to join an offensive against forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
He said the Southern Front, a rebel coalition, has long suspected the Jihad Units of being loyal to the Islamic State group. After the ambush, the Islamic militants raised black flags similar to those carried by the IS group.
Six of the Southern Front fighters were killed in the ambush, al-Rayess said. Soon after, another ambush resulted in the kidnapping of two fighters, he said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 29 people, including at least nine from the Jihad Units and two Saudi nationals, have been killed in the fighting since Monday.
The rebels have vowed to clear the Jihad Units from the province, and al-Rayess said his men are currently besieging about 200 Jihad Units fighters in a village south of Quneitra.
Fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, a hard-line Islamic rebel group, have also joined in the fight against the Jihad Units, al-Rayess said, although there is no coordination.
"We will not allow for the presence of Daesh in the southern front," al-Rayess said in a telephone interview, referring to the IS group by its Arabic acronym. In an offensive last year, the rebels seized most of the Quneitra province, which is also considered a gateway to the capital.