|ISIL terrorists retreat from parts of northern Syria||
The terrorist Islamic State of Iraq and Levant has begun withdrawing from parts of northern Syria ahead of a deadline set by a rival group, activists said Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the group was retreating east towards its stronghold in the city of Raqa.
The withdrawal comes four days after the al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra Front issued ISIL an ultimatum to go before an Islamic court for mediation or face being forced from Syria altogether.
The deadline expires on Saturday.
"ISIL has withdrawn from Aazaz, its most important bastion in Aleppo province, as well as the Minnigh military airport, the Mayer region and the villages of Deir Jamal and Kafin," the Observatory said.
"Aleppo region is their weakest link, so they fear being attacked there" by Al-Nusra and other rebels after the deadline expires, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The withdrawal was confirmed by the opposition Aazaz Media Centre, which claimed it as a victory for rival rebel fighters.
Video from the town posted online showed a demonstration of residents chanting "the Free Syrian Army forever" after ISIL's withdrawal.
Al-Nusra on Tuesday issued a threat against ISIL after the death of a senior Islamist commander, Abu Khaled al-Suri, who had close ties to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
Both Al-Nusra and ISIL have roots in al-Qaeda's onetime Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq.
But the two groups have never merged, with Jolani rejecting a union proposed by ISIL, and al-Qaeda's Zawahiri urging ISIL to return to Iraq after they moved into Syria.
In early January, a coalition of Islamist and moderate rebels angered by ISIL's abuses of civilians and rival opposition fighters began attacking the group.
Al-Nusra initially remained out of the fray but in recent weeks has begun actively fighting ISIL.
Meanwhile, the Syrian army is preparing to assault a key militant bastion near Damascus, a pro-government newspaper says.
“The Syrian army is preparing to launch a new phase” on the town of Yabroud near the Lebanon border in its offensive in the Qalamoun mountains, Al-Watan reported on Thursday.
The newspaper said Syrian troops have seized control of two strategic hills near Yabroud, which has been the target of heavy air raids and tank fire since early February.
“Every day there is progress” by the army, it said, adding that militants had been using the two hills as supply routes.
Syrian forces backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah launched an offensive in the Qalamoun area in November. They have expelled militants from several strategic towns, but Yabroud – the largest in the region – has so far remained an insurgent stronghold.
Pro-opposition media activists said eight militants were killed by shelling and clashes in the Qalamoun region.
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