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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 October 2018

Syrian rebel leader Abdelqader Saleh dead after air raid

Head of the Al Tawhid Brigades, which is back by Qatar, dies from wounds in Turkish hospital.

AMMAN // A prominent Syrian rebel leader has died from wounds he received in an air raid on the city of Aleppo, in a blow to the armed opposition to the president, Bashar Al Assad, activists said yesterday.

Abdelqader Saleh, the head of the Islamist Al Tawhid Brigades, which is backed by Qatar, died in a Turkish hospital. He had been wounded on Thursday when the forces of Mr Al Assad raided a Tawhid meeting and killed another commander, opposition sources said.

“We declare the martyrdom of Abdelqader Saleh,” Tawhid said.

Having lost several key rebel bases in recent weeks, Saleh, who was in his 30s, had been trying to regroup fighters in Aleppo before he died.

The city, which is 45 kilometres south of Turkey, was Syria’s commercial hub and most populous city before the uprising against Mr Al Assad erupted in 2011.

Taking advantage of infighting between rebel groups, Mr Al Assad’s forces, backed by Shiite militia from Iraq and the Lebanon’s Hizbollah, have been making advances in the north and east of the contested city.

In an interview last week, Saleh said: “We will not let Iran and Hizbollah advance except on our dead bodies.”

Saleh, a merchant from the town of Mareh in the countryside north of Aleppo, organised dozens of rebel brigades in the region under the Tawhid banner. A former army conscript, he was known as Hajji Mareh.

Tawhid issued a statement last week, along with other Islamist formations that included Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate, declaring an emergency and summoning all fighters to head to the fronts.

Opposition activists said the declaration was an indication of how grave rebels regarded the possibility of Mr Al Assad’s forces, boosted by his Shiite militia allies and Iran, wresting back Aleppo.

Tawhid’s ties have been deteriorating with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil), another Al Qaeda affiliate, as clashes broke out in the past few months in the north between the group and other rebel units, including Nusra and units of the Free Syrian Army.

Abu Abdallah Al Hamwi, the head of hardline Islamist brigade Ahrar Al Sham that works with Isil, said Saleh had sought his help to heal a rift between the Isil and other groups. “He wanted a solution to stop Muslims fighting Muslims,” Hamwi said.

Meanwhile, Mr Al Assad’s forces fired rocket and artillery barrages on a mountain town near Lebanon yesterday in a push to capture the strategic area after gains against rebels in Damascus and Syria’s north.

Shells hit Qara, 80km north of Damascus, as rebels hid in the Qalamoun mountains, refugees said. Located near the road linking the capital to Aleppo, the region has been used by rebels to cross from Lebanon.

Control over the area would link Damascus with the Mediterranean coast, an important route to move chemical weapons out of Syria.

* Reuters