LONDON: Syrian rebels waging a new offensive trying to cut a major supply line between Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria have been ambushed and suffered heavy casualties despite support from RAF Tornado jets.
Fighters from the New Syria Army rebel group were yesterday ambushed and encircled after initially taking parts of the border town of Al-Bukamal from Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (Isil).
Rebel commanders had hoped the operation would put pressure on Isil as it faces a separate US-backed offensive in northern Syria.
Tornados from Akrotiri in Cyprus on Sunday fired Storm Shadow cruise missiles for the first time in Britain's anti-Isil campaign in the run up to the attack and yesterday continued to fly missions to back the rebels.
One rebel source told Reuters the offensive made good early progress, and broke into the town, but fighters then pulled back into the desert after being encircled by Isil in a surprise ambush.
"The news is not good. I can say our troops were trapped and suffered many casualties and several fighters were captured and even weapons were taken," he said.
Isil's news agency earlier said it had killed 40 rebel fighters and captured 15 more in a counter-attack at the Hamadan air base north west of the city.
The New Syria Army was formed some 18 months ago from insurgents driven from eastern Syria at the height of Islamic State's rapid expansion in 2014. Rebel sources say it has been trained with US support.
Islamic State's capture in 2014 of Al-Bukamal effectively erased the border between Syria and Iraq. Losing the town on the Euphrates would be a blow to the cross-border "caliphate" led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The US-led campaign against Isil has intensified this month, with an alliance of militias including the Kurdish YPG launching a major offensive against the militant group in the city of Manbij in northern Syria. In Iraq, the government this week declared victory over Islamic State in Fallujah.