Residents walk along a damaged street in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria February 9, 2014
Residents walk along a damaged street in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria February 9, 2014
News   /   Field Reports

An Al-Qaeda splinter group has withdrawn its militants from Syria's oil-rich eastern governorate of Deir al-Zor, today, after days of heavy fighting with its rivals.

Militant groups, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate al-Nusra Front, have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) for control of towns and oilfields in the area, sparking a spate of car bombs in the governorate.

"The ISIL fighters have almost completely withdrawn from Deir al-Zor. The militants are moving to Hassaka and Raqqa governorate" ,said a source from al-Nusra Front, who asked not to be named.

Pro- ISIL activists on Twitter said the group had withdrawn from Deir al-Zor to prevent further bloodshed. Several militant groups launched a campaign last month to try to push ISIL forces, their former allies, out of opposition-held regions in northern and eastern Syria. Islamist opposition groups joined forces with some opposition militant units to fight ISIL, with whom they have territorial disputes and ideological differences.

ISIL, which has attracted many foreign Islamist militants into its ranks, is a small but powerful fighting force in Syria's opposition areas. It has alienated many civilians and opposition activists, however, by imposing harsh rulings against dissent in areas it controls, such as beheadings.

Over a month of clashes killed more than 2,300 militants, making it the bloodiest episode of infighting in Syria's nearly three-year conflict. ISIL is the rebranding of Al-Qaeda's affiliate in neighbouring Iraq, but it defied the central leadership's requests to limit itself to fighting there instead of Syria. Al-Qaeda's central leadership formally announced a split with ISIL earlier in February.

The opposition observatory, a pro-opposition monitoring group, said Deir al-Zor was now in the hands of al-Nusra fighters as well as 10 other militant groups. It said "there were heavy clashes. ISIL asked for mediation but al- Nusra Front rejected that, so it pulled out". Some activists said one of ISIL's Deir al-Zor leaders, known as Abu Ther al-Iraqi, was also detained by militants today.

Efforts to mediate between ISIL and other militant groups, even Islamist forces with similar religious views, have failed. Unlike other Islamist groups such as al-Nusra, which follow similar austere interpretations of Islam, ISIL was trying to set up an Islamic caliphate in territory it seized in Iraq and Syria.

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