The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has captured two northern Iraqi towns, Zumar and Sinjar, and a nearby oil field after a battle with Kurdish forces who had control of the area, witnesses said on Sunday.
Witnesses said residents of Zumar and Sinjar were fleeing after Kurdish fighters put up little resistance against the militants.
The al-Qaeda offshoot, which swept through northern Iraq in June almost unopposed by the Iraqi army, poses the biggest challenge to the stability of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
After thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled the ISIS offensive, different militias and Kurdish fighters emerged as a key line of defence against the militants, who have threatened to march on Baghdad.
Kurdish forces had poured in reinforcements, including special forces, to Zumar, where they battled ISIS fighters who had arrived from three directions on pickup trucks mounted with weapons, residents said.
ISIS has stalled in its drive to reach Baghdad, halting just north of the town of Samarra, 100 km (62 miles) north of the capital. The group has already seized four oil fields, which help fund its operations.
An official in the Northern Oil Company said ISIS fighters had taken control of the Ain Zalah oil field and two other undeveloped fields – Batma and Sufaiya.
In a statement on its website, ISIS said its fighters killed scores of Kurdish fighters in a 24-hour battle and then took over Zumar and 12 villages.
“Hundreds fled leaving vehicles and a huge number of weapons and munitions and the brothers control many areas,” ISIS said. “The fighters arrived in the border triangle between Iraq, Syria and Turkey,” it said.
ISIS’s ambitions have alarmed other Arab states who fear their success could embolden militants in their countries.