BEIRUT // Rebel fighters laid siege on Monday to Al Qaeda-linked militants in their northern stronghold of Raqa, managing to free 50 people they had detained, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Raqa emerged as a new front on Sunday in fighting among rebels battling to oust the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, with various groups joining forces against Al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
“The rebels have been laying siege to Isil’s headquarters in the city of Raqa since last night. They released 50 Syrian prisoners held by Isil in another building,” said the Observatory.
Raqa is the only provincial capital to have fallen out of regime hands since the conflict erupted when regime opponents took up arms following a bloody crackdown by Mr Assad’s forces on democracy protests in March 2011.
But soon afterwards it fell into the grip of Isil, which is said to be holding hundreds of prisoners in their now besieged headquarters in the heart of Raqa.
Among Isil’s abductees are scores of rival rebels, activists and journalists, including Westerners.
“The foreigners are being held in other buildings, outside Raqa city,” said the Observatory, a Britain-based group that tracks the conflict.
But Turkish photographer Bunyamin Aygun, kidnapped in December in Syria, was freed on Sunday amid the fighting.
“Every night, I had the same dream that I was being freed. I cannot believe that I am free now. It feels like a dream,” Mr Aygun said, according to his employer, the Milliyet daily.
Mr Aygun said that Al Qaeda-linked militants who kidnapped him threatened to “cut him into pieces”.
“He said, ‘It’s either execution by firing squad or by being cut into pieces. We will cut you into pieces, this is more honourable for you,” Mr Aygun said, referring to a militant.
Asked whether the militants asked for ransom, Aygun told reporters in Istanbul: “I was not aware of anything. My eyes were blindfolded all the time. They opened my eyes only when I went to the toilet. I was not informed of the matter.”
Twenty-five journalists have been killed since the start of the conflict in March 2011, according to Reporters Without Borders, while more than 30 journalists are estimated to have been abducted or detained.
Monday’s offensive in Raqa came three days after three powerful rebel alliances launched what they called a second “revolution” against Isil in the northern province of Aleppo and Idlib to its west.
On Sunday, the rebel infighting spread to the central province of Hama, as well as Raqa, and the Observatory says scores of insurgents have been killed on both sides.
A key complaint against Isil among rebels is that its jihadists refuse to operate within the broader opposition dynamic.
The observatory said “the main group laying siege to Isil’s headquarters in Raqa is Al Nusra Front,” which like Isil is affiliated to Al Qaeda but is seen as more moderate.
Isil and Al Nusra have fought each other in recent months, after Isil announced it was Al Qaeda’s representative in Syria. Al Nusra had been operating in Syria for longer, and refused to work under Isil’s command.
Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri then ordered Isil’s Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi to work with Al Nusra — and he refused. The two groups have since had, at best, tense relations, and at worst they have engaged in open fighting.
The 33-month conflict in Syria is estimated to have killed more than 130,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes as refugees or internally displaced persons.
* Agence France-Presse