IS raids kill 40 Syrian regime forces: Monitor

BEIRUT - Islamic State group jihadists have killed at least 40 Syrian government forces in consecutive attacks on three checkpoints in central Syria, a monitor said on Saturday.

In less than two hours of clashes on Friday, IS jihadists seized the checkpoints near Sheikh Hilal, a village in Syria's Hama province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The clashes killed 40 government loyalists, including soldiers and members of the National Defence Forces," a local pro-regime militia, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

He told AFP that the jihadists later withdrew from the checkpoints when it appeared that government forces in the region had called for reinforcements.

"There's fighting almost every day in this area, but usually the toll is two or three people. Forty is very high," he told AFP.

The checkpoints lie along a road used by government forces to dispatch reinforcements to Aleppo in the north, where the regime has been battling rebel groups since 2012.

"If they seize control of this road, they'll cut off the regime forces in Aleppo, since the government won't be able to send reinforcements or supplies there," Abdel Rahman said.

Protecting the province of Hama - which links Damascus to the government's coastal bastion of Latakia - is a priority for Syria's embattled regime, but it has suffered devastating jihadist attacks in recent months.

In early March, the jihadists killed 63 soldiers in two days of raids on government positions in Hama, and later that month executed at least 37 civilians in the village of Mabujeh.