Turkish-backed rebels capture main town before IS-held al Bab

AMMAN (Reuters) - Turkish-backed Syrian rebels said they took the town of Qabasin from Islamic State on Tuesday, removing the last major hurdle in their drive to capture the northern city of al Bab from the jihadists, rebels said.

They said they took Qabasin, which lies several km northeast of al Bab, to set the stage for an onslaught on the last urban stronghold of IS in the northern Aleppo countryside.

The latest in a string of advances by the rebels has effectively outmaneuvered Kurdish-dominated militias who have also have been gaining territory from IS in a drive from the east in hopes of reaching al Bab before their mainly Arab rivals.

“We encountered little resistance and most of the Islamic State fighters had gone when we entered the town,” Abu Bilal, a field commander from Ahrar al Sham rebel group in the vicinity of the area, said via Internet messaging.

“This was their main line of defense (of al Bab) and now we are set to storm the city from several fronts. It’s a battle that has already begun,” he added.

The capture of al Bab would be a significant victory for Turkey, which launched a major offensive last August to secure its border region against both the IS and Kurdish advances.

Al Bab is located 30 km (19 miles) south of Syria’s border with Turkey and the same distance from Aleppo, meaning its capture could also help rebels advance against pro-government forces besieging their comrades inside the city.

Al Bab was a major economic hub for the militants and lies on a key crossroads for the region north of Aleppo. Rebels said most of its residents had already fled and only a few dozen militants had been dug in there.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Mark Heinrich