Damascus(Syria): Al Qaeda militants in northern Syria captured a town near the Turkish border on Thursday following heavy clashes with Western-backed rebels, prompting the closure of a nearby frontier crossing, activists and Turkish officials said.
It was the latest development in what has effectively become a war within a war in northern and eastern parts of Syria pitting moderate fighters and Kurdish militiamen against extremists with ties to al Qaeda in recent battles that have left hundreds dead from both sides.
The US and its European and Gulf allies are increasingly concerned about the rising prominence of Islamists among the rebels, who have played a major role in the civil war against President Bashar Assad`s forces.
Elsewhere, a bus struck a roadside bomb in the central province of Homs, killing 19 people, a local official said. The blast in the village of Jbourin also wounded four people, according to the official from the governor`s office who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
The village is predominantly Alawite an offshoot of Shiite Islam and a minority sect of which Assad is a member but it also has Christians and Sunni Muslims.
It was not immediately clear why the bus was targeted. The civil war, which has left more than 100,000 dead, has taken increasingly sectarian overtones. Most of the rebels trying to overthrow Assad belong to the majority Sunni sect.
The fighting in the north prompted Turkey to close the border crossing of Bab al-Salameh, a Turkish Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the conflict, said members of the al Qaeda offshoot, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, stormed the town of Azaz yesterday evening, forcing opposition fighters from the Western-backed bloc to pull out.
Clashes between both sides broke out when ISIL fighters tried to detain a German doctor they accused of taking photos of their positions on behalf of the rival rebels, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory. The doctor, a volunteer in the region, escaped, but the two rebel factions started fighting.