BEIRUT (AP) — The Islamic State group on Thursday seized a key town in central Syria following heavy clashes with President Bashar Assad's forces, in the militants' biggest advance since capturing the historic town of Palmyra in May, Syrian activists said.
The heavily populated town of Qaryatain lies southwest of Palmyra, which is home to towering Roman ruins, and some 85 kilometers from Homs city. Its capture allows the IS group to link up areas under its control in and around Palmyra with areas in the eastern countryside of Qalamoun in Damascus province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the IS group seized the town Thursday after three suicide bombers targeted army checkpoints at the entrance the day before, setting off a fierce battle.
Websites affiliated with the Islamic State group confirmed the militants had taken over Qaryatain. A Facebook page through which the IS posts news of its military activities carried photos that purported to show the fighting to "liberate" the town, including a tank allegedly seized from the Syrian army.
Qaryatain lies midway between the cities of Homs, Palmyra and Damascus. Activists say it has a mixed population of around 40,000 Sunni Muslims and Christians, as well as thousands of internally displaced people who had fled from Homs.
The IS group had suffered a string of military setbacks after capturing Palmyra. In June, Kurdish fighters and their local allies expelled IS from the key northern border town of Tal Abyad, cutting off a major supply route for the group.
Late last month, Turkey began carrying out airstrikes against IS targets in Syria. It also agreed to allow U.S. warplanes to use the strategic Incirlik Air Base for operations against IS in Syria. Turkey's foreign minister said Wednesday that American aircraft had begun to arrive at the base, which is close to the border with Syria, adding that an "extensive' fight against the extremists would soon begin.