A leader of an Al Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria has been assassinated, activists said Monday, further inflaming hostilities between opposition fighters and potentially throwing into greater disarray those trying to oust President Bashar Assad.
Abu Abdullah Libi, the self-styled emir of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the northern province of Idlib, was killed Sunday when the vehicle he was riding in was sprayed with bullets, rebels and activists said.
One activist with close ties to the Islamic State said Libi was probably on his way to the village of Hazano, where fighting between his group and mainstream Free Syrian Army rebels erupted earlier in the day, in a bid to negotiate a cease-fire.
As Libi passed through a Free Syrian Army checkpoint, his vehicle came under fire from several directions, said the activist, who goes by the alias Junood for security reasons. Other activists and rebels said the ambush happened on a stretch of highway not controlled by any one group and was carried out by unknown assailants.
A spokesman for the Free Syrian Army denied that its fighters were involved, although the group is far from cohesive.
The incident is certain to cause a further fracturing of the relationship between the two rebel groups, which have by turns fought alongside and against each other. Activists in Idlib said they feared the Islamic State would retaliate and there would be more fighting.
That would be one more setback for the rebels, whose foreign backers have been slow to send promised military aid because of fears that extremists in their midst are gaining influence. Fighters within the Free Syrian Army increasingly accuse the Islamic State of being interested only in seizing areas already controlled by the opposition to establish an Islamic caliphate.
The assassination came on the heels of fighting between the two sides in nearby Aleppo province last week, when the Islamic State seized the rebel-held town of Azaz, near the Turkish border. The clashes subsided after two days when a cease-fire was struck. But the truce was broken Monday, when the Islamic State issued a statement saying it was going after members of the Free Syrian Army’s Northern Storm Brigade.
The Al Qaeda-linked group said it was trying to “purify” Azaz of the brigade because of supposed infractions that included wanting democracy, meeting with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) when he visited Syria and working with the American private contractor, Blackwater, which has not operated under that name in years.
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