By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
JULY 27, 2016, 12:19 P.M. E.D.T.
DAMASCUS, Syria — A suicide bomber riding an empty livestock truck laden with explosives blew himself up Wednesday in a crowded district in the predominantly Kurdish town of Qamishli in northern Syria, causing massive destruction and killing 44 people in a new attack claimed by the Islamic State group.
Residents and activists describe a huge explosion in the western district of the town Kurds have declared as the capital of their self-declared autonomous enclave in northern Syria.
Hours after the early-morning explosion, rescue workers continued to search for survivors under the rubble of buildings, some of them totally leveled by the powerful blast. Most of the victims were civilians, who were lingering in the district that also houses a station for the Kurdish security forces. It was not immediately clear if any Kurdish fighters were among those killed.
"Terror is all I saw among the residents when I first arrived. I was shocked at the extent of destruction in the homes and shops," said Decile Husen, a 23-year old media activist who works with the Kurdish ANHA Hawar news agency, who got to the scene shortly after the 9.30 a.m. explosion.
"One home was reduced to rubble. Nothing was left of it," she said.
Qamishli, near the Turkish border, is mainly controlled by Kurds but Syrian government forces are present and control the town’s airport.
The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, have carved out a semi-autonomous enclave in Syria’s north since the start of the civil war in 2011, where they run their own affairs.
Kurdish officials said the IS militants targeted the town in retaliation for the ongoing offensive they lead against Manbij, an IS stronghold east of Qamishli.
The predominantly Kurdish Syria Democratic Forces, backed by airstrikes and training from the U.S.-led coalition, have been the main force fighting IS on the ground in northern Syria. Kurdish forces have also been the most successful ground force in terms of reclaiming territory and towns from IS over the past two years.
In recent weeks, the Islamic State group has come under increasing military pressure in Iraq and Syria, losing Fallujah in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria. Its fighters are currently being besieged in Manbij.
In retaliation, the militant group has claimed a series of attacks it said were against members of the international coalition that have been fighting against it. The recent attacks in Germany and France were claimed by the group, which had urged its supporters around the world to take the war outside of Iraq and Syria.
In a statement published by the IS-linked Aamaq news agency, the group said it carried out the attack in Qamishli, describing it as a truck bombing that struck a complex of Kurdish offices. In a later statement, it said the suicide bombing was in retaliation for the U.S.-led airstrikes in Manbij, threatening the Kurds specifically with more attacks.
The extremist group has carried out several bombings in Kurdish areas in Syria in the past.
Syrian state TV broadcast footage showing people running away from a mushroom of gray smoke rising over the town and others running amid wrecked or burnt cars. Other footage showed the damage reaching side streets. Residents were carrying bloodied bodies on stretchers away from the scene while some climbed over the rubble, clearly searching for survivors.
Qamishli resident Suleiman Youssef, a writer, told The Associated Press by telephone that he heard the first explosion from a few miles away. He said the blasts leveled several buildings to the ground and many people were trapped under the rubble.
"Most of the buildings at the scene of the explosion have been heavily damaged because of the strength of the blast," he said.
Initial media reports said the first explosion was followed by an explosives-packed motorcycle a few minutes later in the same area. But later reports and footage showed a massive flame erupting, apparently from a gas canister, after the initial explosion.
Husen, the media activist and photojournalist, said fires erupted in some buildings and overturned cars. She said the explosives-laden vehicle was believed to be an empty livestock truck that went off in the main street, named after the nearby town of Amuda.
The commander of the Kurdish security forces, Joan Ibrahim, vowed to avenge the "dirty" attack, which he said came in retaliation for the siege imposed by the SDF on Manbij.
"We promise (our people) that we will take revenge from Daesh and its allies for martyrs, and wounded and for Qamishli," Ibrahim said in a recorded video message posted on the security forces’ Facebook Page, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
El Deeb contributed from Beirut