Syrian rebels overran the Aleppo headquarters of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Wednesday, as claims emerged that ISIL had massacred prisoners there in cold blood.
They were reportedly also pressing ISIL in Raqa, the only provincial capital lost by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and a stronghold of the group.
The operation in Aleppo came a day after ISIL’S` spokesman threatened to “crush” opposition fighters who have attacked the group in several provinces.
“There are hardly any ISIL members left in the city of Aleppo,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Elsewhere, a diplomat announced two Swedish reporters missing in Syria since November had been freed.
And the fractious Syrian opposition National Coalition said it was postponing until January 17 a final decision on whether to attend peace talks in Switzerland.
On the ground, ISIL battled moderate and Islamist rebels in clashes that first erupted on Friday and have killed at least 385 people, including 56 civilians.
ISIL’s headquarters in a hospital in Aleppo’s Qadi Askar neighbourhood was overrun by opposition fighters, who reportedly freed dozens of prisoners.
But a video posted online Wednesday claimed ISIL had previously executed at least nine prisoners after handcuffing, blindfolding and shooting them in the head.
The Coalition denounced “these acts, which perpetuate the regime’s methods to kill free voice, suppress liberty and violate… fundamental human rights.”
Late Tuesday, ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a defiant message, urging fighters to “crush them (the rebels) totally and kill the conspiracy at birth”.
“None of you will remain, and we will make of you an example to all those who think of following the same path,” he added.
Adnani also warned that ISIL had declared war on the Coalition and chiefs of the opposition Free Syrian Army.
“Everyone who belongs to this entity is a legitimate target for us, in all places, unless he publicly declares his rejection of that group and of fighting the mujahedeen (jihadist fighters).”
His message came hours after the head of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, urging an end to the fighting.
‘Fighting regime a priority’
Abu Mohamed al-Jolani warned the fighting “risks costing us dearly on the ground if it continues” and urged all fighters “to give priority to the fight against the regime”.
The Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria, was established in mid-2011 with help from ISIL’s Iraqi precursor.
The Iraqi group’s chief later sought to merge with Al-Nusra, but they spurned an alliance and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Since then, they have functioned separately, with Al-Nusra largely neutral in the latest fighting.
But the Observatory said Nusra fighters were pressing ISIL in Raqa, to the east of Aleppo.
It said they had captured a former regime political security office held by ISIL and were shelling the nearby governor’s office, said to be the group’s headquarters.
In Damascus, a security source told Agence France-Presse the infighting benefited Syria’s regime, calling it a settling of scores by nations backing different rebel groups.
Regime operations continued Wednesday, with the Observatory reporting at least eight people killed in air raids on Tal Rifaat in Aleppo province.
Elsewhere, Sweden’s ambassador confirmed that two journalists missing in Syria since November had been freed.
Swedish media named them as Niclas Hammarstroem and Magnus Falkehed.
At least 25 journalists have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011, and more than 30 are thought to be missing.
Both the regime and its opponents have been accused of abducting and killing journalists.
In Istanbul, a fiercely debated National Coalition meeting ended without a decision on attending peace talks in Switzerland on January 22.
The general assembly decided to postpone the decision until January 17.
And in The Hague, the world’s chemical watchdog called for Syria to speed up handing over its arsenal for destruction, after missing a key deadline.
The joint OPCW-UN mission said Tuesday that a first cargo of chemicals had been brought to Latakia and transferred to a Danish vessel, but all Syria’s most dangerous chemicals were supposed to have left the country by December 31.
Even so, mission head Sigrid Kaag expressed guarded optimism that the mid-year target for destroying the entire arsenal can still be met. AFP