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Jihadists battle rebels for control of key Syria province

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Beirut (AFP)

A former Al-Qaeda affiliate was locked in fierce clashes Friday with a leading rebel group for control of one of the last major parts of Syria not held by the regime.

The clashes in Syria's Idlib province in the country's northwest pit the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) against the key rebel group Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Turkey and some Gulf countries.

The factions were once allies and fought alongside each other to capture most of Idlib province from the Syrian government in 2015.

But tensions between the two have been growing, exacerbated, analysts say, by HTS's fears of a plan to expel the internationally designated "terror" group from the province.

The current fighting erupted on Tuesday and quickly spread throughout the province, including overnight to the key Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

The crossing was previously controlled by Ahrar al-Sham.

"The fighting is now inside the crossing. It has become a battlefield, with part of it under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham's control, and part under Ahrar al-Sham's control," said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The monitor said the fighting has so far killed at least 65 people, including 15 civilians.

An AFP correspondent in the province also reported heavy clashes as HTS fighters attempted to break into the town of Ram Hamdan, in the east of the province, including the sound of large explosions and heavy weaponry.

- Jihadist fire on protests -

HTS is dominated by the Fateh al-Sham faction, which was previously known as Al-Nusra Front before renouncing its ties to Al-Qaeda.

The clashes have been accompanied by sporadic demonstrations against HTS in several parts of the province, including in the town of Saraqeb where the jihadists on Wednesday and Thursday opened fire on protests against them.

On Wednesday, the shots killed a media activist participating in the demonstrations in the town.

Both sides have set up new checkpoints, and parts of the province have been transformed into virtual ghost towns with residents staying home for fear of being caught in the crossfire, AFP's correspondent said.

The Observatory said at least 15 civilians, including four children, have lost their lives so far, including the media activist killed in the Wednesday demonstration in Saraqeb.

Another 50 fighters from both sides have been killed in clashes and executions, the monitor said.

Experts said the outbreak of violence comes against the backdrop of a deal agreed in the Kazakh capital Astana in May for four "de-escalation zones" in Syria.

The agreement between regime allies Russia and Iran, and rebel backer Turkey, designates the Idlib region as one of the mooted zones where combat between the government and rebels would halt.

HTS opposes the agreement, which calls for continued fighting against jihadist groups like its main component Fateh al-Sham Front.

- 'Vying for control' -

"As soon as there was the announcement of Idlib as a de-escalation zone, that's it," said Nawar Oliver, a military analyst at the Istanbul-based Omran Centre think-tank.

"HTS felt like a war is upon it," he told AFP.

"You have these two main rebel forces that are vying for control for Idlib province," added Sam Heller, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation.

"Whatever kind of political or ideological differences existed between them have been exacerbated or inflamed by the Astana talks, as well as by the rumours -- if not the reality -- of some larger deal that would work against HTS," he said.

Oliver added that the fighting was a chance for each side to gain valuable territory, including the border crossing where taxes and tariffs can be extracted.

"This is an attempt by each faction to extend more influence and control over new areas," he said.

Idlib is one of the last major parts of Syria beyond the control of the government, which has recaptured vast swathes of territory from opposition fighters since its ally Russia intervened on its behalf in September 2015.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

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