Rebels Close in on Village ISIS Believes Will Host Doomsday Battle

Backed by Turkey and U.S., rebels close push towards ISIS stronghold in south; attack reported al-Hader in north.

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A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, seen with an ISIS mural in the background, stands guard in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016.
A member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, seen with an ISIS mural in the background, stands guard in the border town of Jarablus, Syria, August 31, 2016.Credit: Umit Bektas, Reuters

Syrian rebels backed by Turkey and a U.S.-led coalition are closing in on the Islamic State-held village of Dabiq, the site of an apocalyptic prophesy central to the militant group's ideology.

Meanwhile, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Syrian government-held city of Hama on Monday, killing a number of people, the Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The first bomber blew himself up using an explosive belt in a square in the city's al-Hader district, followed 15 minutes later by a second bomber in the same location, SANA reported, citing a police source. It said the blasts had killed and injured a number of people, but did not say how many.

Apocalypse now

Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel groups have been pushing southwards into Islamic State's territory in an operation backed by Turkey since Aug. 24, and have taken villages near Dabiq in recent days. A rebel leader said the plan was to reach Dabiq within 48 hours, but cautioned Islamic State had heavily mined the surrounding area, a sign of its importance to the group.

Although Dabiq, a village in relatively flat countryside northeast of Aleppo, holds little strategic value, it is seen by Islamic State as the place where a final battle will take place between Muslims and infidels, heralding Doomsday.

The group has named its online English-language magazine Dabiq and in April and May sent about 800 fighters there to defend it against advances by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.

"If matters proceed as planned, within 48 hours we will be in Dabiq," Ahmed Osman, commander of the Sultan Murad FSA group, said in a voice recording sent to Reuters.

However, Islamic State has heavily mined the area, making progress around Turkman Bareh slower than in other areas, said Osman, adding that 15 deaths among insurgent ranks in the past 24 hours were caused by mines and mortar fire.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is actively supporting the rebels as they advance "to within a few kilometres of (its) weakening stronghold" of Dabiq, Brett McGurk, Washington's special envoy for the coalition, said in a Tweet.

Islamic State has exploited the five-year-old Syrian civil war to seize swathes of territory.

Washington believes taking Dabiq could strike at Islamic State morale as it prepares to fend off expected offensives against Iraq's Mosul and Syria's Raqqa, the largest cities held by the jihadists, officials from a coalition country said.

Turkish warplanes hit Islamic State targets in the areas of Dabiq, Akhtarin and Turkman Bareh, destroying nine buildings including a command post, gun positions and an ammunition depot, a statement by Turkey's military said on Monday.

The latest fighting marks an escalation since Turkish troops crossed the border into Syria on Aug. 24 to back opposition fighters battling Islamic State in an operation Ankara says is aimed at removing the border threat the jihadists pose.