American warplanes have struck for a third time an Al Qaeda-linked extremist faction operating in Syria, the U.S. military's Central Command said Friday.
A single airstrike targeted the Khorasan group, Centcom said in a statement, referring to a network of senior Al Qaeda operatives that U.S. officials have said is plotting terrorist attacks against targets in the West.
The Khorasan Group operates in coordination with Al Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, according to U.S. officials.
The raid was one of 20 conducted by the U.S.-led coalition between Wednesday and Friday, the military said. All but three of the attacks occurred near the north-central Syrian city of Kobani, where Kurdish militiamen have been fending off an assault by militants of the Islamic State group for weeks.
U.S. officials say the main goal of the air campaign is to destroy Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot that has overrun large swaths of territory in Syria and neighboring Iraq. However, in September and last week warplanes also targeted Khorasan, whose existence was revealed by American officials last month as the bombing campaign in Iraq was extended to Syria.
In an apparent reference to the latest strike, Syrian activists reported that a drone aircraft launched two rockets in the Syrian town of Harem, close to the Turkish border in the northern province of Idlib, much of which is under rebel control. The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strike targeted an "agricultural center," killing two men in the vicinity.
However, a pro-government Facebook page put the death toll at more than 20 and said the center had served as the local headquarters for Al Nusra Front.
Like previous attacks on the Khorasan Group, U.S. officials said the latest strike did not specifically target Al Nusra, a Sunni Islamist group that is among the most powerful and radical rebel groups fighting the government of President Bashar Assad.
Syrian opposition activists said, however, that the true target of the strikes against Khorasan is Al Nusra Front, which has considerable support in Syrian opposition zones.
Al Nusra Front has long had a working relationship with elements of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, a loosely organized rebel umbrella group. In recent weeks, however, Al Nusra fighters have reportedly been attacking Free Syrian Army positions in northern Syria.
Many opposition activists in Syria and elsewhere doubt the existence of Khorasan, contending that the targets being attacked are actually Al Nusra Front strongholds. Last week, as Centcom announced the second round of strikes on Khorasan positions, opposition activists said warplanes had hit the headquarters of Al Nusra Front and Ahrar al Sham, another hard-line rebel group with Al Qaeda links.
Outside experts who closely monitor opposition activity in Syria also say they had never heard of Khorasan until U.S. authorities in Washington began to cite the group as a threat.
The initial wave of airstrikes that U.S. officials said was aimed at Khorasan in September reportedly targeted its leadership, including Kuwaiti-born Muhsin Fadhli, believed to be a major Al Qaeda operative.
Fadhli, implicated in a number of Al Qaeda operations, was reported to have moved to Syria last year to set up cells of European extremists to execute terrorist strikes in Western countries.
But Fadhli’s death in the U.S. airstrikes in September in Syria was never confirmed. Whether he survived is not publicly known.
Al Nusra, which first emerged publicly in Syria in early 2012 with a series of car bombings in government-controlled areas, later split with its onetime ally, Islamic State, which became a bitter rival. Islamic State is now the dominant armed opposition faction in Syria.
The U.S. bombing campaign has fueled rumors of a potential rapprochement between the two extremist groups.
On Friday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted sources in Aleppo and Raqqah provinces saying Al Nusra and other Islamist groups had sent emissaries to Islamic State to set up a cease-fire and begin negotiations. Islamic State, however, reportedly refused the overtures.
Special correspondent Bulos reported from Amman and Times staff writer McDonnell from Beirut.
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