Some 250 Syrians were missing and feared kidnapped on Thursday after the militant Islamic State (IS) group attacked a cement factory in an advance against government positions east of Damascus.
The militants launched the offensive after suffering a series of setbacks at the hands of government troops in recent weeks including the loss of the ancient city of Palmyra, which officials said residents would start returning to on Saturday.
The fresh fighting came ahead of a new round of peace talks due next week in Geneva following a ceasefire between the government and ‘moderate rebels’ that has allowed Syrian forces to focus on fighting IS.
After being pushed out of Palmyra on March 27, IS launched the fresh assault this week near the town of Dmeir, some 50 kilometres east of Damascus.
Residents said IS attacked the cement factory outside the town on Monday and that about 250 employees had gone missing.
“We haven’t been able to reach our family members since noon on Monday after an attack by Daesh on the factory,” said one resident of Dmeir, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
“We have no information about where they are. “An administrator at the plant confirmed that 250 employees had been unreachable since Monday.
Dmeir is divided between IS control in the east and rebel control in the west, but several key positions around it, including a military airport and a power plant, are still in government hands.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the fighting was heavy but the militants had not managed to gain significant ground.
“The most violent clashes are near the airport and the power plant, but IS has not entered either yet,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.