Turkish-backed rebels captured the emblematic northern Syrian town of Dabiq from the Islamic State group on Sunday, dealing a major symbolic blow to the jihadists.
The defeat for IS came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet European allies in London as part of a new diplomatic push to end Syria’s conflict, which has left more than 300,000 people dead since 2011.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish state media and a rebel faction said opposition forces backed by Turkish warplanes and artillery had seized control of Dabiq on Sunday.
The town, in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo, is of little strategic value.
But Dabiq holds crucial ideological importance for IS and its followers because of a Sunni prophecy that states it will be the site of an apocalyptic battle between Christian forces and Muslims.
The Observatory, a Britain-based monitoring group, said rebel forces “captured Dabiq after IS members withdrew from the area”.
The Fastaqim Union, an Ankara-backed rebel faction involved in the battle, said Dabiq had fallen “after fierce clashes”.
The Observatory said fighters also captured the nearby town of Sawran.
Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency also said the rebels had taken control of Dabiq and Sawran and were working to dismantle explosives laid by retreating IS fighters.
It said nine rebels were killed and 28 wounded during clashes on Saturday.
Byword among IS supporters
Dabiq has become a byword among IS supporters for a struggle against the West, with Washington and its allies bombing jihadists portrayed as modern-day Crusaders.
Earlier this week, IS downplayed the importance of the rebel advance on the town.
“These hit-and-run battles in Dabiq and its outskirts -- the lesser Dabiq battle -- will end in the greater Dabiq epic,” the group said in a pamphlet published online Thursday.
Turkey launched an unprecedented operation inside Syria on August 24, helping Syrian rebels to rid its frontier of IS jihadists and Syrian Kurdish militia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday said Turkey would push further south to create a 5,000-square-kilometre (1,900 square-mile) safe zone in Syria.
The border area has become deeply unstable and on Sunday Turkish state media reported that suicide bombers blew themselves up when police raided their sleeper cell in the city of Gaziantep.
Media reports spoke of casualties without providing precise numbers.
According to Anadolu, Ankara-backed rebels now control 1,130-square-kilometres along the border in Aleppo province, the northern governorate that has been carved into zones of control by jihadists, Kurds, rebels, and regime forces.
In provincial capital Aleppo, government troops have been waging a fierce Russian-backed offensive on rebels in the eastern quarters of the city.
Non-stop raids in Aleppo
Fighting continued in Aleppo’s northern and southern outskirts on Sunday, as well as in the city centre, according to the Observatory.
AFP’s correspondent in Aleppo said there had been nearly non-stop air raids on the opposition-held half of the city since midnight.
State news agency SANA said two women were also killed and 16 people wounded in rebel fire on one government-controlled neighbourhood on Sunday.
Fighting has surged in Aleppo following the collapse last month of a ceasefire brokered by the United States and Russia, raising deep international concern.
Kerry was to fly to London on Sunday to brief Washington’s European allies after “brainstorming” talks in Lausanne with the main players in Syria’s bloody conflict.
The Swiss meeting on Saturday included key rebel backers Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, as well as regime supporters Iran and Russia.
But it did not produce a concrete plan to restore the truce that collapsed amid bitter recriminations between Washington and Moscow and new fighting on the ground.
Kerry is expected to meet on Sunday with his counterparts from Britain, France and Germany, but hopes for a breakthrough have been dim.