ISTANBUL — Syrian rebels on Wednesday ousted the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria from its last major base in the city of Aleppo, freeing 300 mostly civilian prisoners and dealing an enormous setback to the al-Qaida-affiliated group.
Fighters who raised the flags of both the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and the recently formed Islamic Front over the base found the bodies of 70 people who’d been detained and killed by ISIS at the Aleppo Eye Hospital, which the group had seized and turned into a base, Syrian television journalist Hazem Dakel told McClatchy.
The dead included nine media activists, a number of medical personnel and several fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, the other Syrian rebel force allied with al-Qaida, he said. The rest were Free Syria Army fighters, he said.
The endgame for ISIS in Aleppo began Tuesday evening, when its forces attacked the main base of the Liwa al-Tawhid brigade. Al-Tawhid, one of Syria’s largest rebel groups, had led the assault that wrested Aleppo from government control more than a year ago. Al-Tawhid called in reinforcements and threatened a massive attack on ISIS.
Under an agreement negotiated by al-Nusra early Wednesday, several hundred ISIS troops were allowed to withdraw with their weapons in return for not killing the 300 hostages at the base, according to Ahmad al-Ukda, another Syrian journalist
Al-Ukda told McClatchy that al-Tawhid is now pursuing ISIS and is determined to force it out of the Aleppo region.
ISIS’ retreat came just hours after its top spokesman issued a bloodcurdling call to fight to the end and to show no mercy to anyone connected with the Free Syrian Army.
Fighting continued in Raqqa, a provincial capital east of Aleppo that ISIS controls, in Saraqeb, a crossroads town to the southeast, and in Ad Dana, ISIS’ headquarters due west of Aleppo.
In a message broadcast Tuesday, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani told the group’s fighters to “show no mercy” to the Syrian rebel forces that have attacked ISIS since the offensive began Friday. “We have armies in Iraq and Syria full of hungry lions, who drink their blood and consume their flesh, and they find nothing tastier than the blood” of the groups opposing it, he said.
The statement singled out the FSA as biggest foe and made no mention of the Syrian government, whose ouster has been the goal of Syrian rebel forces for nearly three years. ISIS propaganda said its aim in Syria is to establish an Islamic caliphate, but rebel groups now charge that its actions effectively supported the cause of the government of President Bashar Assad.
Hundreds of Syrians have been released as rebel forces drove ISIS from more than a dozen of its strongholds in northern Syria. At least one non-Syrian, Bunyamin Aygun, a Turkish photo journalist with the newspaper Milliyet, also was rescued.
Aygun, who’d been in detention for 40 days, told reporters in Istanbul that ISIS members accused him of being an Israeli spy. He said he was interrogated for almost three weeks, blindfolded and his hands cuffed.
“They thought the Milliyet newspaper is not Muslim, that we in Turkey are working for Israel and the U.S. and that I was a spy,” he told reporters.
At one point he was threatened with execution. “We are going to slit your throat. This will be more honorable for you. Say your last words,” he quoted his captors as saying. “Of course that was very hard.”
Conditions then eased, he said, but on some days he had only a single piece of bread, no water and no access to the toilet.
Aygun said he was continually moved from place to place until the weekend, when Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist fighting force, raided the house in which he was held, freed him and arrested his captors.
McClatchy special correspondent Joel Thomas contributed from Istanbul.