Syrian rebels approach symbolic Islamic State village

October 3, 2016 5:15 AM EDT

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ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (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.

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.

Nearly a dozen air strikes by the U.S.-backed coalition killed 13 militants, while the Turkish army said it also fired on Islamic State from inside Turkey after the jihadists used rockets to target its border town of Kilis.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun, Tom Perry, Ayla Jean Yackley and Daren Butler; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Dominic Evans)

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