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Gunmen kill 7 Syrian first responders

By Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports

This article was published August 13, 2017 at 3:11 a.m.

BEIRUT -- Gunmen early Saturday stormed an office of a Syrian paramedic group that is active in opposition-controlled areas, killing seven of its members and stealing two vehicles and other equipment in a northwestern region, the group and opposition activists said, while a suicide attack in southern Syria killed at least 23 rebels.

The Syrian Civil Defense group, more popularly known as the White Helmets, said in a statement that the attack happened in the early hours in the town of Sarmin.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack but it came amid tension in the area. Sarmin is in Idlib province, which witnessed clashes recently between al-Qaida-linked fighters and members of the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group that ended with al-Qaida fighters capturing much of the region.

Hay'at Tahrir al Shamm, the militant group formerly known as the Nusra Front, said over the past weeks that its members have discovered sleeper cells of the Islamic State that were planning an attack. The group -- which renounced its ties to al-Qaida last year, a claim rejected by the U.S. -- has fought deadly battles with the Islamic State group over the past years.

[THE ISLAMIC STATE: Timeline of group’s rise, fall; details on campaign to fight it]

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the seven were killed after being shot in the head, adding that the killings were discovered when volunteers from the White Helmets arrived to start a shift and found the bodies of their colleagues.

"Until now it is most likely a crime. It might also be an attack aimed to harm the image of the Nusra Front and to show that Idlib is not safe," said Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Observatory.

An opposition activist based in Idlib who has been providing information about the province for years said the attackers used pistols equipped with silencers, adding that people living nearby did not notice anything unusual.

The activist, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisals, said Islamic State sleeper cells have been discovered in Sarmin. He added it's likely that members of the militant group carried out the attack to show that Idlib is not safe.

The activist said the Hay'at Tahrir al Shamm-linked Judicial Committee is investigating the case.

Sarmin used to be a stronghold of the Jund al-Aqsa extremist group that clashed with al-Qaida last year before many of its members were allowed to head to areas controlled by the Islamic State, whom they are fighting now.

The Syrian first responders have been known to risk their lives to save people from the civil war, now in its sixth year. The White Helmets group was widely considered likely to win last year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile, an international chemical weapons delegation will visit Syria in the coming days and Damascus will facilitate its mission to uncover who used chemical weapons in the country earlier this year, a Syrian official said Saturday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the delegation of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism is scheduled to arrive in Syria within 10 days.

Mekdad reiterated in an interview his government's denial of being behind the April 4 attack in the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun that killed nearly 100 people.

The United States blamed the Syrian military for the attack and launched a punitive strike days later on the Shayrat air base from where it said the attack was launched.

"We will offer it all facilitations needed for the investigation and to help it arrive to the place where the alleged chemical attack took place," Mekdad said, adding that a delegation that came to Syria earlier this year did not visit Khan Sheikhoun citing security concerns. He added that the delegation also did not visit the Shayrat air base either.

It is not likely that the delegation will be able to visit Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province due to the recent clashes.

"We will ask them to go to Shayrat air base and by that Syria would have given proof that it has no relations to the use of poison gas," Mekdad said in the interview at his office in Damascus.

"We bet on the professionalism and neutrality of the Joint Investigation Mechanism that will visit Syria within the next 10 days, to investigate who used chemical weapons," the Syrian official said.

Elsewhere in Syria, a suicide attacker blew himself up inside a training camp for the Army of Islam rebel group in the southern town of Naseeb, near the border with Jordan, killing more than 20 fighters.

The Observatory said Saturday that the Friday night blast killed 23 and wounded 20, some of whom were in critical condition.

Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist based in the southern province of Daraa, said about 80 Army of Islam members were having dinner inside a tent when the suicide attacker walked in and blew himself up. He said 30 were killed, 20 were wounded and six are still missing.

No one claimed responsibility for the deadly bombing but the Islamic State has previously claimed such attacks.

Information for this article was contributed by Bassem Mroue and Albert Aji of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/13/2017

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