At least nine Syrian soldiers killed in militant attack in Badia

AMMAN (Reuters) - At least nine Syrian army soldiers were killed on Sunday in an ambush on their bus on a main highway in the central Syrian desert in the second such incident in less than a week by suspected Islamic State militants, residents and defectors said.

Syrian state media earlier said six people, without identifying them as soldiers, were killed near Wadi al Azeeb in the western part of the Syrian desert known as the Badia, east of the city of Hama, when their bus was targeted while on the road.

Russian jets flying from a major air base in the area at high altitudes bombed its vicinity in the surprise attack that left at least twenty two soldiers injured, several seriously, according to two military defectors in touch with their coordinates on the ground.

State media said last Wednesday twenty-eight people were killed in a similar "terrorist" attack on a bus along a main highway in Deir al-Zor province that borders Iraq.

Pro-Syrian army supporters later published on social media burning army vehicles in what residents and defectors said was an ambush on buses transporting soldiers returning to their barracks after leave. [L1N2JA1FW]

Military defectors gave a higher toll that exceeded thirty dead saying they were recruits from the Syrian army's elite Fourth Brigade, which has a strong presence in the rich oil-producing province since Islamic State fighters were ousted at the end of 2017.

Islamic State's Amaq news agency a day later claimed responsibility for the ambush, saying it had killed 40 Syrian army soldiers and badly wounded six others. L4N2JB1YY

Western intelligence sources say there has been a rise in recent months of ambushes and hit-and-run attacks by remnants of Islamic State militants who take shelter in caves in the mainly rugged sparsely Syrian Badia.

They also say in the last few months, Arab Sunni tribes who inhabit the area have been angered by executions by Iranian Shiite militias operating in the area of dozens of Arab nomads suspected of affiliation to Islamic State militants.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Diane Craft)

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