Beirut: Islamic State militants seized a string of villages from rival insurgents north of Aleppo city on Friday, in a surprise attack that came despite intensive Russian airstrikes that Moscow insists are targeting the extremist group, activists said.
Iranian state media reported that a senior commander in Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard was killed by the Islamic State group on the outskirts of Aleppo city, but it was not immediately clear whether Gen. Hossein Hamedani's death was related to the new IS offensive.
An Iranian state television report said he was killed while "carrying out an advisory mission," and the official IRNA news agency read a statement by the Guard in which it blamed IS for his death. Both reports did not provide further details.
The new developments come amid a wave of Russian airstrikes that have targeted insurgents fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, and a ground offensive by the Syrian army in the country's central region.
Moscow says it is targeting mainly Islamic State militants, but US officials and Syrian rebels have said the strikes have hit mainstream rebels for the most part and are designed to shore up Assad's embattled government and troops.
In a surprise attack, the Islamic State group seized a string of villages from rebels in Aleppo province today. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the advance by the extremists, which began Thursday night, is the most significant in months. It said the militants seized the villages of Tal Qrah, Tal Sousin and Kfar Qares north of Aleppo city.
The group also seized a former army base known as the Infantry Academy that rebels captured from the Syrian army two years ago. The base is located around 10 miles (16 kilometers) northeast of Aleppo city and about one mile (1.6 kilometers) away from a government-held industrial zone on the northern edge of Aleppo.
The pro-IS Aamaq media outlet said the group seized six villages and other strategic positions in Aleppo province after battling with armed opposition groups there. It said the group opened its blitz with a surprise attack on the Infantry Academy, forcing rebels positioned there to withdraw after a number of their fighters were killed or captured.
It said militants then continued their advance toward nearby villages, killing and wounding rebels and seizing "qualitative weapons and ammunition" from them along the way.
Opposition activists said the Islamic State group took advantage of Russian airstrikes and the rebels' preoccupation with fighting Syrian army forces on other fronts in central Syria.