BEIRUT (Reuters) - Fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on Friday captured key towns in eastern Syria adjoining territory the al Qaeda splinter group has seized in Iraq, a monitoring organization said.
The Islamists, whose stated aim is to create a strict Islamic state straddling national borders, took over the towns of Muhassan, Albulil and Albuomar, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
ISIL, which opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has also been fighting rival rebel groups in Deir al-Zor, an oil-producing eastern province of Syria devastated by the three-year-old civil war.
The newly captured towns are in an area running along the Euphrates River that links Syria and Iraq and are significant because they are close to Deir al-Zor’s military airport and the Syrian city of al-Mayadin, the Observatory’s Rami Abdurrahman said.
“If you control al-Mayadin, this means there are no more important cities except Abu Kamal out of (ISIL) control,” in the province, he said, referring to another town close to the Syria-Iraq border. “They are pushing forward.”
Muhassan, which is just over 100 km (60 miles) from the border with Iraq, is an important position for any attempt to capture the airport, he added.
The Observatory, which opposes Assad, tracks the Syrian civil war through a network of activists in the country.
Deir al-Zor has seen more than two years of fighting between opposition fighters and the Assad government forces and some civilians fled to Iraq to escape it. A second wave of internecine war among anti-Assad factions has erupted in parts of Syria they control.
ISIL, a rebranding of al Qaeda in Iraq which fought American forces during the U.S. occupation, has been disowned by the al Qaeda leadership.
It took neighborhoods of Deir al-Zor city last month from the Nusra Front, Syria’s official al Qaeda affiliate.
ISIL has a core of foreign fighters and has imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the territories it controls.
A car bomb in Syria’s western Hama province on Friday killed 34 and wounded more than 50, Syria’s state news agency SANA said, blaming the attack on rebels.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack on a government-controlled village.
Reporting by Sylvia Westall; editing by Andrew Roche