Group linked to al Qaeda regains ground in northeast Syria

AMMAN Sun Jan 12, 2014 10:03pm IST

A Free Syrian Army fighter shouldering a weapon walks within the Band 17 area in Raqqa December 24, 2013. REUTERS/Nour Fourat/Files

A Free Syrian Army fighter shouldering a weapon walks within the Band 17 area in Raqqa December 24, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Nour Fourat/Files

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AMMAN (Reuters) - 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 al Qaeda 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 km (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 four-decade 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.

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 Western-backed 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.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Andrew Roche)

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