Al Qaeda fighters battle Syrian rebels in border town
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Fighters linked to an al Qaeda-affiliated group overran the Syrian town of Azaz near the Turkish border on Thursday after fighting broke out with Free Syrian Army units, according to local opposition activists.
Divisions within Syrian rebel ranks escalated into open conflict late Wednesday when members of an al Qaeda-affiliated group clashed with fighters from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army in a town near the Turkish border.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an al Qaeda-linked group, stormed the border town of Azaz and killed at least five Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, according to opposition activists.
"The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seized complete control of Azaz. They are in control of the town's entrances," Abu Ahmad, an activist inside the town, told the AFP news agency.
But a London-based opposition group was more cautious in its reporting. According to Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS snipers were deployed across Azaz, but the group was not yet in full control of the town.
A strategic town on the northern border with Turkey, Azaz lies on a vital supply route for Syrian rebels who use the Bab al-Salamah border crossing just outside the town to access weapons and humanitarian aid.
The presence of al Qaeda fighters at its southern border poses a security to risk to Turkey, a NATO member that has been providing logistical support to the FSA in their military campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Zawahiri issues a warning to jihadists in Syria
The latest fighting came days after al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement calling on Islamist militants not to join forces with “secular” rebels backed by Western and Arab governments.
In an audio message released on the 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri accused the United States of seeking to impose to Syrian rebel groups "allied to the West”.
"I warn my brothers and people in the Syria of unity and jihad against coming close to any of these groups," said Zawahiri in a translation provided by the US monitoring service, SITE.
Rivalries between the FSA and Islamist fighters have been escalating as the third year of the Syrian conflict drags on, with the Islamists gaining the upper hand in recent weeks.
In July, a senior FSA commander, Kamal Hamami, was shot and killed by ISIS fighters in what the FSA called an assassination.
Wednesday’s fighting in Azaz broke out after an FSA unit resisted attempts by ISIS fighters to abduct a German doctor working as a volunteer at a local private hospital, according to opposition activists.
The fate and whereabouts of the German doctor were not known.
"By taking Azaz, the Islamic State is a step closer to controlling the crossing. Its objective seems to be taking over the whole countryside north of Aleppo," said opposition activist Abu Louay al-Halabi in an interview with Reuters.
Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub, has been a major front in the Syrian uprising with rebels and Syrian regime troops locked in a pitched battle for control of the country’s largest city.
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