September 8, 2012
BAB AL-HOWA, Syria — Members of one of the largest groups fighting to topple President Bashar Assad’s government two weeks ago killed the leader of an extremist band thought responsible for the July kidnapping of two European journalists, according to rebels encamped in this town near the border with Turkey.
By David Enders / McClatchy Newspapers
|©Vedat Xhymshiti – 2012|
Farouq Battalion members were hesitant to discuss the death of Abu Muhammad al-Shami al-Absi — “They have threatened us,” one Farouq fighter said — and the exact circumstances of his demise were unclear. But Absi’s death appears to be the first indication of how deep the rivalries have become among rebel groups that must compete for both resources and influence with one another.
Meanwhile, two bombs in the Syrian capital, Damascus, killed at least six security officers and their civilian supporters Friday, and hundreds of Assad opponents held protests to demonstrate their continued hold on a handful of suburbs despite the military’s campaign to uproot them.
More than a month after fighting first flared around Mr. Assad’s Damascus stronghold, the battle appears to have settled into a stalemate, residents said, with rebel fighters of the so-called Free Syrian Army occupying, if not controlling, a handful of suburbs including Qaddam and Tadamon. Residents say recurring bombings targeting security forces and their facilities have become a regular occurrence, especially on Fridays, destroying any sense of stability.
The existence of Absi’s group became public in late July, when two photographers — one Dutch and one British — were freed by other rebels after spending a week as hostages. During their time as prisoners, the journalists said, members of Absi’s group threatened them with death and told them the group intended to impose an Islamist government in Syria after Mr. Assad’s fall. Among the group’s members, the journalists said, were several, apparently of Pakistani descent, who spoke English with British accents.
The kidnappings and the journalists’ subsequent accounts confirmed fears voiced by the United States and others that extremist elements were working to gain influence over the armed Assad foes.
Absi’s group is known as the Mujahedin Shura Council. It participated in June in the takeover of Bab al-Howa, the Syrian side of a border crossing with Turkey, and held onto the crossing until Farouq, which now largely controls the crossing, evicted council members about two weeks ago.
Farouq, whose members say they draw support from individuals across the Middle East, is considered moderately Islamist, but some members have expressed concern over what they see as a drift toward more extreme tendencies.
Rumors of turf battles have surfaced before, especially as rebel groups have competed for resources, and backers have competed for influence. In recent months, reports of non-Syrian Muslims fighting in the country have proliferated, the most prominent being the presence of Libyans, one of whom commands his own brigade in northern Syria.