ISIS attack on Syria truffle hunters kills at least 31, monitor says

Authorities have warned against searching for truffles in Syrian desert

Merchants present their desert truffles at a market in the city of Hama in west-central Syria.  AFP
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Suspected ISIS extremists killed at least 31 people foraging for truffles near the west-central Syrian city of Hama on Sunday, a monitor said, in the latest such attack in the country.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the killing of four shepherds by ISIS extremists in a separate incident, and the abduction of two others.

“A total of 31 people, including 12 pro-regime fighters, were killed while collecting truffles in the desert east of Hama,” the Observatory said, giving a new toll.

Earlier, it reported the death of at least 26 people, a figure confirmed by the official Syrian news agency Sana.

Syria's desert truffles fetch high prices in a country battered by 12 years of war and a crushing economic crisis.

Authorities frequently warn against the high-risk practice. But between February and April each year, hundreds of impoverished Syrians search for truffles in the vast Syrian desert, or Badia — a known hideout for extremists that is also littered with landmines.

Since February, more than 230 people — most of them civilians — have been killed in ISIS attacks targeting truffle hunters or by landmines left by the extremists, according to the Observatory.

The victims included 15 people foraging for truffles who had their throats slit by ISIS last month.

In February, ISIS fighters on motorcycles opened fire on truffle hunters and killed at least 68 people, the war monitor said at the time.

The Syrian desert is renowned for producing some of the best quality truffles in the world.

The prized fungus can sell for up to $25 per kilo depending on size and grade — in a country where the average monthly wage is around $18.

Also on Sunday, ISIS extremists carrying automatic rifles and riding motorbikes attacked a group of shepherds in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor, the Observatory said.

The fighters stole the sheep before fleeing, and also abducted two shepherds, said the war monitor which relies on a network of sources inside Syria for its reports.

But the state news agency Sana said five shepherds were killed in the attack, as well as 250 sheep when the extremists opened fire on them.

In March 2019, ISIS lost its last scraps of territory in Syria following a military campaign backed by a US-led coalition, but remnants continue to hide in the desert and launch deadly attacks.

They have used such hideouts to ambush civilians, Kurdish-led forces, Syrian government troops and pro-Iranian fighters, while also mounting attacks in neighbouring Iraq.

Syria's war has claimed the lives of around half a million people and displaced millions since it erupted in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Remnants of explosives laid by all sides in the conflict are now claiming more lives in Syria than anywhere else in the world, says the United Nations.

Since 2015, landmines and other explosive remnants have on average killed or injured five people every day, according to UN data.

Updated: April 17, 2023, 4:37 AM