DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — A land mine left by the Islamic State group struck a van packed with workers in eastern Syria, killing more than 20 of them, Syria’s state news agency said on Sunday. The agency earlier reported that 24 people were killed.
SANA said the explosion on Sunday morning near the central town of Salamiyeh was caused by explosives left behind by the militants when they controlled the area. A mine exploded in a nearby area earlier this month, killing seven people.
SANA said the workers hit by Sunday’s blast were on their way to pick desert truffles.
IS has been driven out of virtually all the territory it once held in Syria and neighboring Iraq, but the extremists left behind countless bombs and booby traps, and large areas have yet to be cleared.
IS fighters are now cornered by U.S.-backed Syrian forces in a small area near the Iraqi border.
An estimated 300 IS militants are besieged in the village of Baghouz, hemmed in by the Euphrates River and the U.S-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led militia spearheading the fight against IS following an intense push since September. Thousands of civilians have fled the area held by the extremists in recent weeks.
The presence of so many civilians — and possibly senior members of the militant group — in Baghouz has surprised the SDF and slowed down the expected announcement of the extremist group’s territorial defeat.
Also Sunday, a Syrian Kurdish official denied that the SDF had handed overs scores of Iraqi IS fighters to neighboring Iraq.
The foreign affairs official in the Kurdish-led administration, Abdulkerim Umer, who is in charge of handing over foreign fighters, said there has been no contact with the Iraqi government over the issue and no Iraqi nationals whether fighters of family members have been handed over.
He said all handovers had happened through his office, adding that they included an American woman and four children, two Sudanese, an Indonesian family and Chechens and Russians.
He said there are more than 800 foreign fighters in northeastern prisons, which don’t include the latest foreign fighters detained in recent weeks after leaving the village of Baghouz.
“Everyone is evading their responsibilities,” he said. IS “is a burden on the international community. Their presence in our community doesn’t mean they are not a danger still.”
He warned that any chaos or vacuum in eastern Syria or a new wave of violence could “lead to their escape and they will once again constitute a danger to the international community and us.”
Umer said that in addition to those in detention there are also thousands of family members living in camps, and as many as 2,000 foreign children “if not rehabilitated, they are potential terrorists and a danger to the international community.”
Umer’s comments came a day after two Iraqi security officials said Baghdad received on Saturday custody of a second batch of 150 Iraqi IS fighters from the SDF.
The Iraqi officials said the SDF has told authorities in Iraq it has captured 650 Iraqi militants in the fighting for Baghouz and handed over 150 in the first significant transfer to Iraq.
More than 30,000 people who left the last IS-held areas have arrived at the al-Hol camp in Syria’s northern Hassakeh province in the last few weeks, raising the overall population of the camp to almost 42,000.
SANA and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported that several gas cylinders exploded in al-Hol, wounding at least 14 people and causing a huge fire late Saturday. SANA said the wounded were taken for treatment in nearby hospitals.