ISTANBUL — Syrian rebels on Wednesday ousted the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from its last major base in Aleppo, freeing 300 mostly civilian prisoners and dealing an enormous setback to the al-Qaida-affiliated group.
Fighters who raised the flags of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army and the recently formed Islamic Front over the base found the bodies of 70 people who had been detained and killed by the ISIS at the Aleppo Eye Hospital, which the group had seized and turned into a base, Syrian television journalist Hazem Dakel said.
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 Syrian Army fighters, he said.
Meanwhile, two Swedish journalists who were abducted in Syria were released after a month and a half in captivity. Dozens of local and foreign journalists have been killed or kidnapped in Syria.
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The ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, initially joined forces with moderate rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad in a conflict that began in March 2011 as a popular uprising but escalated into a civil war.
The extremists proved well-organized and efficient fighters, giving the ragtag rebels a boost.
But the Iraqi-based network began employing brutal tactics and trying to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law, alienating other factions and leading to some of the worst infighting of the conflict.
The endgame for ISIS in Aleppo began late Tuesday, 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 on 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 said that al-Tawhid was 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 Muhammed 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 Free Syrian Army as the biggest foe and made no mention of the Syrian government.
Al-Adnani also declared war against Shiites in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, whom Sunni Muslim extremists, such as those in al-Qaida, consider to be their main enemy.
Swedish officials confirmed that writer Magnus Falkehed and photographer Niclas Hammarstrom were now free and said both were receiving assistance from Swedish diplomats in Beirut.
There were no further details on who abducted them or how they were freed, but Hammarstrom told a Swedish newspaper he had been shot in the leg during a failed escape attempt. Both freelancers were abducted on their way out of Syria in November.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.