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Syrian rebels lay siege to al-Qaeda-linked jihadists Turkish photographer freed in Syria returns home

DAMASCUS, Jan 6, (AFP): Syrian rebels were laying siege Monday to jihadists in their northern stronghold of Raqa, as they waged an allout offensive aimed at crushing the al-Qaeda affiliate they accuse of abuses. Raqa is the latest front in a fight pitting a broad coalition of moderates and Islamists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad against the al- Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As the fighting raged, the National Coalition re-elected Ahmad Jarba to lead the opposition bloc, less than three weeks before slated peace talks in Switzerland. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels attacking ISIL in Raqa also “released 50 Syrian prisoners” held by the Sunni extremists. Raqa is the only provincial capital to have fallen out of regime hands since the conflict erupted as Assad unleashed a bloody crackdown against a revolt that began in March 2011.

The city soon fell into the grip of ISIL, which entered the Syrian war in late spring last year to join the fight against Assad’s regime. Rebels initially welcomed them, but tensions grew as ISIL was accused of imposing a reign of terror in areas it operates, especially Raqa. ISIL is said to hold hundreds of prisoners in their now besieged Raqa headquarters, and foreign journalists elsewhere in the province. Turkish photographer Bunyamin Aygun, kidnapped in December while covering Syria, was freed Sunday, and 10 Syrian Kurds kidnapped at ISIL checkpoints escaped, said the Observatory.

The Raqa offensive comes after three powerful rebel alliances launched Friday what activists called a second “revolution”. The rebels have since made speedy advances, expelling ISIL from checkpoints, neighbourhoods, bases and villages in Aleppo, Idlib and Hama provinces. ISIL withdrew Monday from Tal Abyad near Turkey, said the Observatory. A key complaint against ISIL among rebels — including the Islamic Front, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and Mujahedeen Army — is that its jihadists want hegemony over opposition areas. Activists have also reported horrific abuses by ISIL, including widespread kidnappings, torture, assassinations and public executions. And on Monday, the body of a decapitated child was found near ISIL’s headquarters in Kafranbel, Idlib, the Observatory said. While many opponents of Assad have welcomed news of the advance on ISIL, some fear it might “distract” the rebels from fighting his regime, which continued to shell opposition-held areas on Monday.

A security official in Damascus told AFP the fighting between the rebels and ISIL was “expected, and will become more violent”. He added that, as different rebel factions receive assistance from different sources, “nothing unites them except terrorism”. Assad’s regime brands all its opponents — including activists — as “terrorists”. The Observatory said “the main group laying siege to ISIL’s headquarters in Raqa is Al-Nusra Front,” which like ISIL is affiliated to al-Qaeda but seen as more moderate. ISIL and Al-Nusra have fought each other in recent months, after ISIL announced it was al-Qaeda’s representative in Syria. Al-Nusra had been operating in Syria longer, and refused to work under ISIL’s command. Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri then ordered ISIL’s Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi to work with Al-Nusra — but he refused.

The two groups have since had, at best, tense relations, and at worst they have engaged in open fighting. The fighting comes as ISIL took over Fallujah city in neighbouring Iraq, in a new sign of the regionalisation of the Syrian conflict. On Sunday in Istanbul, where the opposition holds its meetings, the National Coalition re-elected Jarba as its leader. Jarba, who is seen as close to key rebel backer Saudi Arabia, was first elected to head the opposition bloc in July, and will now lead it for another six months. His re-election comes at a sensitive time, less than three weeks before scheduled peace talks in Switzerland that would bring rebels and regime representatives to the table.

The Coalition will discuss on Monday whether to take part in the peace talks, though a key group — the Syrian National Council — has already announced it will boycott the so-called Geneva 2 process. The Syrian conflict has killed more than 130,000 people in nearly three years, and forced millions more to flee their homes. An award-winning Turkish photographer kidnapped while covering the civil war in neighbouring Syria has returned home after being freed from weeks in captivity, his newspaper said on Monday. Bunyamin Aygun, who works for the Milliyet daily, was taken hostage by radical Islamists in mid-December during a reporting mission in the war-torn country. He was freed on Sunday and entered Turkish territory accompanied by eight members of the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT), Milliyet said. “Every night, I had the same dream that I was being freed. I cannot believe that I am free now. It feels like a dream,” the daily quoted him as saying. Aygun said that al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who kidnapped him threatened to “cut him into pieces”. “He said, ‘It’s either execution by firing squad or by being cut into pieces. We will cut you into pieces, this is more honorable for you,” Aygun said, referring to a militant. Asked whether the militants asked for ransom, Aygun told reporters in Istanbul: “I was not aware of anything. My eyes were blindfolded all the time. They opened my eyes only when I went to the toilet. I was not informed of the matter.” Rights groups describe Syria as the world’s most dangerous country from which to report. Twenty-five journalists have been killed since the start of the conflict in March 2011, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), while more than 30 journalists are estimated to have been abducted or detained.

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