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Islamist State gains allegiance in eastern Syrian towns, villages

| Friday, July 4, 2014, 2:34 p.m.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria marched across eastern Syria near the border with Iraq on Thursday — seizing towns, villages and the country's largest oil field as rival rebel factions gave up the fight, activists said.

The extremist group — which controls large parts of northern Syria and captured vast swaths of northern and western Iraq last month — is now in almost full control of a corridor stretching from Syria's border town of Boukamal to the government-controlled provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the northwest.

Led by an ambitious Iraqi militant known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) this week unilaterally declared the establishment of an Islamic state, or caliphate, in the lands that it seized in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS — which members renamed the Islamist State — proclaimed al-Baghdadi the head of its new self-styled state and demanded that all Muslims pledge allegiance to him.

Nusra fighters — who have controlled Syria's largest oil field, al-Omar, since late last year — abandoned the facility without firing a bullet, said Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The al-Omar field has changed hands several times in the course of Syria's three-year conflict.

The new developments effectively expand and consolidate areas held by the group in territory straddling the border between the two conflict-ridden countries.

The majority of significant Syrian rebel groups fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad have rejected al-Baghdadi's declaration.

The rebel groups, including the al--Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have fought the extremist group since the beginning of the year. Nearly 7,000 people, mostly fighters, have died in the infighting.

The Nusra Front appears to be losing the war within a war in Syria as fighters allied with powerful tribes in eastern Syria defect to al-Baghdadi's group.

On Thursday, a video posted online by activists showed a man in the town of Sheheil, a Nusra Front stronghold. He read a statement: “We have decided to declare our allegiance to the Islamic State and the Caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

Another video showed what appears to be fighters in the nearby Ishara village announcing that they are ceasing their fight against the Islamist State.

“The clans of the city of Ishara, and the villages around it ... and all of the factions in these areas ... announce before God that they will cease fighting with the Islamic State,” a man said, reading from a statement as he stands in a courtyard with several other tribal elders.

The videos appear to be genuine and matched AP's reporting from the area.

The Deir el-Zour Coordination Committees, a collective of activists in the area, confirmed that militants entered the town of Mayadeen and Ishara after other rebel fighters withdrew.

Rami Abdurrahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said some Nusra fighters remain clashing with their rivals at the outskirts of Sheheil but said the al-Qaida-linked group appears close to collapse.

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