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Qaeda franchise gains in Syria battle Fighting claims at least 700

AMMAN, Jan 12, (Agencies): A group linked to al- Qaeda recaptured much of its stronghold in the northeast Syrian city of Raqqa on Sunday, activists said, dealing a blow to rival rebel groups backed by Gulf Arab and Western states. Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) battled remnants of rival Islamist units including the Nusra Front, another alQaeda affiliate, in several neighbourhoods of Raqqa, they said. To the north, ISIL recaptured the town of Tel Abyad on the border with Turkey over the weekend, they said. Abu Khaled al-Walid, an activist speaking from the border area, said many fighters from Ahrar al-Sham, one of the most powerful Islamist groups, chose not to confront ISIL because the combatants were local people with little enmity for each other. “Many did not see a point in fighting their own relatives. ISIL is now in control of 95 percent of Raqqa and its rural environs. Tel Abyad is also back with it,” he said. Raqqa, on the Euphrates River 385 kms (240 miles) northeast of Damascus, is the only provincial capital to have fallen to President Bashar al- Assad’s opponents since the revolt against his family’s fourdecade rule broke out in March 2011. ISIL pulled out of Raqqa and other towns in northern Syria this month after an Islamist rebel alliance attacked its strongholds, taking advantage of growing popular resentment of the group’s foreign commanders and their drive to impose their strict interpretation of Islamic law

Regrouped But ISIL has regrouped in the last few days, using snipers, truck-mounted commando units and suicide bombers. Opposition sources said the expertise of its foreign commanders, including a senior figure known as Omar al- Shishani, has been crucial to its advance. In the province of Aleppo west of Raqqa, activists said ISIL had regained several rural towns, including Hrietan and Basraton, where ISIL killed a senior commander in the Nour al-Din Zanki brigades, a key unit in the newly-formed Mujahideen Army, which has been fighting ISIL in Aleppo. Fighting also raged on Sunday between Westernbacked Free Syrian Army units around the town of Renayan near Aleppo and in Urum to the east, as rebel infighting made the city vulnerable to advances by Assad’s forces, the sources said. Fierce fighting between the jihadists and rival rebel groups has killed at least 700 in more than a week while hundreds more are missing, a monitoring group said Sunday. The al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), linked the violence to a peace conference on Syria slated to take place in Switzerland on Jan 22. The allegations came as Western powers on Sunday

stepped up pressure on Syria’s divided opposition to take part in the conference alongside representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “From Jan 3 to 11, the fighting killed 697 people, among them 351 rebels, 246 members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and 100 civilians,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said there could be even “more than 1,000” dead, but his group has been unable to document all the killings given the ferocity of the clashes. The Britain-based monitoring group, which relies on a network of activists across Syria for its reports, also said there were “hundreds of captives from both sides whose fate is unknown”. In a reflection of the brutality of the fighting, which has raged mainly in the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Raqa but has also hit Hama and Homs in the centre, at least 200 people were killed in one 48-hour period.

The Observatory also reported that dozens of those killed in recent days died in 16 suicide bombings staged by ISIL in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Raqa provinces. “Sixteen suicide attackers have detonated themselves in the past week, most of them in car bomb attacks, some using explosive belts,” Abdel Rahman said. A rebel fighter with Ahrar al-Sham, which is leading battles against ISIL in several areas, told AFP “they use suicide attacks to terrorise society as a whole into submission, not just the fighters.” “It is one of their most deadly weapons... which they use partly for a lack of other means,” he said via the Internet on condition of anonymity. An ISIL commander had warned rival opposition fighters this week of car bomb attacks if they pressed their offensive against the jihadists. And on Sunday the ISIL branch in Raqa alleged the fighting that erupted nine days ago was linked to the Jan 22 peace conference known as “Geneva 2”. ISIL charged that a group of rival rebels launched the offensive against the jihadists on several fronts “for the sole objective of destroying (us) ... and replacing us ... to satisfy apostate states who will meet at Geneva 2”. ISIL, which is seeking to set up an Islamic state in Syria, said its militants retaliated “in order to protect the jihad” and vowed to “strike with an iron fist those who think they can spill the blood of Muslims”

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