BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 10 Syrian army soldiers, including an officer, were killed in clashes with Islamic State fighters on Tuesday in a rare ground confrontation between the two sides in the eastern Deir al-Zor province, a monitoring group said.
The clashes took place on Huwiejat Sakr, a small island in the Euphrates River located just southeast of Deir al-Zor city, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It is close to a government-controlled military air base, the last major outpost held by the Syrian army in the province.
“Violent clashes have been ongoing since the morning between Islamic State and an allied Islamist brigade on the one hand, and regime forces on the other,” said Rami Abdulrahman who runs the Observatory.
Most of the rest of the province is in the hands of Islamic State, which has captured tracts of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq since the summer and has been the target of U.S.-led airstrikes.
The strikes by the United States and its Arab allies in Syria, which started last month, have targeted Islamic State positions throughout the province to try to cut off the group’s access to oil and its ability to transfer arms and fighters across the border with Iraq.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have also carried a smaller number of airstrikes on the province but ground combat is rare. The Syrian army has concentrated its campaign on rebel-held areas in the west in areas seen as more strategically important to Damascus.
However gains by Islamic State in Syria have forced pro-government forces to confront the group more frequently since June.
The Syrian army also carried out air strikes on the area and there was shelling as well as close combat, the Observatory said, adding that an Islamic State fighter and a civilian were also killed.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said the army had killed “a number of (Islamic State) terrorists...and destroyed their equipment and weaponry,” in the Deir al-Zor province on Tuesday, but did not mention any casualties on the government side.
The Observatory’s Abdulrahman said Islamic State and other fighters removed five of the soldier’s bodies, which included a lieutenant colonel.
Pro-Islamic State accounts on Twitter circulated graphic photos of what appeared to be the disfigured or decapitated bodies of at least four men in military uniform on the back of a pickup truck. Reuters could not immediately verify the images.
“Assad gangs tried to enter Huwaijat Sakr, so Islamic State soldiers repelled them, and this is the result,” tweeted one Islamic State supporter.
Reporting by Rasha Elass; Editing by Peter Graff