A coalition of Syrian rebels and jihadists seized a strategic village from pro-government forces outside the contested city of Aleppo on Friday as a new high of 60,000 people were stranded at the border with Jordan, trying to escape the fighting.
The capture Friday signals the reemergence of a powerful, ultraconservative insurgent coalition on the opposition's side in the Syria conflict.
Renewed fighting erupted around the village of Khan Touman hours after opposition fighters took the position from pro-government forces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. Fighter jets, presumed to belong to either Syria or its powerful ally Russia, were launching strikes on opposition positions.
At least 43 insurgents and 30 fighters on the government side have been killed in the fighting since Thursday afternoon, according to the Observatory.
The offensive was commanded by the Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, coalition, an ultraconservative group led by Al Qaeda's Syria affiliate, the Nusra Front, and the jihadist militias Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. The Observatory said other non-jihadist rebels fought for Khan Touman on the side of the coalition, as well.
Along Syria’s border with Jordan, more than 5,000 people arrived at makeshift camps in the three days alone after a roughly 300-mile journey to escape the violence engulfing Aleppo, The Telegraph reported Thursday.
Aid groups have been begging Jordan to let the Syrians through, noting that the U.N.-run Azraq camp in northern Jordan is mostly empty and could accommodate tens of thousands of refugees.
But Jordan has been hesitant, saying the displaced are a security risk since they come from areas under the Islamic State’s control and not properly have been vetted.
“It is clear we are not terrorists, we are with our families,” Ibrahim, a 24-year old who fled his hometown of ISIS-controlled Deir Ezzor along with his two young cousins, told The Telegraph. “We just want peace in Jordan away from Daesh and the bombing, but I am giving up hope.”
Aid agencies in the region say they are not allowed access to people waiting on Syrian side of the border – and the growing numbers are putting a strain on resources.
The Army of Conquest – who took part in the Friday raid of Khan Touman -- seized Idlib, a strategic and symbolically important provincial capital, from government forces last year and threatened to make advances towards strongholds on the Mediterranean coast and toward Damascus. Russia intervened military on the side of the government partly in response to that threat.
But the coalition of rebels and jihadists is internally divided over who it considers enemies and how it rules areas under its control.
"The suicidal Jund al-Aqsa brigade is ideologically close to Daesh," said Britain-based Syrian activist Asaad Kanjo, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. "Aqsa said it didn't want to fight Daesh and withdrew from the coalition that was suggested."
Kanjo followed the coalition's politics when he was living in Saraqib, near Idlib.
A partial cease-fire this spring between the government and certain rebel factions revealed further divisions in the Army of Conquest.
Aqsa and Nusra fighters suppressed popular demonstrations across Idlib province against the black Jihadist flag, and moderate rebel factions seized on the discontent to try to sideline the jihadists within the opposition. The political shifts split the allegiances of the internally-divided Ahrar al-Sham group. Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are two of the country's most powerful militias.
But the recent collapse of the cease-fire and resumption of hostilities in April appears to have reunified the anti-government opposition.
The return to peace would fragment the Army of Conquest coalition once again, Kanjo said.
Khan Touman is just 4 miles from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and onetime commercial capital. It overlooks the main route between Damascus and Aleppo, parts of which remain under opposition control.
"It is part of the government's defensive line in south Aleppo," said Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman.
Aleppo-area opposition media activist Bahaa al-Halaby said the insurgents took control of Khan Touman around 7 a.m. Friday morning.
Meanwhile, jihadist websites published photos said to be taken from the Shaer gas field district in central Homs province showing Islamic State militants helping themselves to a large government weapons cache, including tanks and military vehicles.
The vital gas fields, which were in government hands, fell to the extremist fighters Wednesday.
Russia and a Syrian military official also denied that they carried out any operation against the Sarmada refugee camp Thursday. Air strikes on the camp, in a rebel-held area near the Turkish border, killed at least 28 civilians, including women and children. The official spoke to AP in Damascus on the condition of anonymity.
Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the Russian military had closely studied data from an air space monitoring system and determined that no aircraft had flown over the Sarmada camp on Wednesday or Thursday.
Konashenkov says the destruction seen on photographs and videos suggested that the camp could have been shelled, whether intentionally or by mistake, from multiple rocket launchers that the Nusra Front has been using in the area.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.