BEIRUT -- A cousin of Syrian President Bashar Assad was killed by Islamist rebels during fighting near the Turkish border crossing of Kasab, the state news agency reported Sunday.
The official Syrian Arab News Agency identified the dead kinsman as Hilal Assad, head of the pro-government National Defense Forces in the Latakia province along the Mediterranean coast. Opposition activists confirmed the report.
The Islamic Front, an umbrella group comprising seven Islamist factions, took responsibility for the death in a statement, saying it had mounted an attack using Grad rockets on a scheduled meeting of pro-government militia leaders in the city of Latakia.
The National Defense Forces is a paramilitary force composed of civilians that was activated after the anti-government uprising broke out in March 2011. It has been instrumental in the government's recent successes on the battlefield.
Although initially little more than a local neighborhood watch program with youths armed with clubs and knives, the front has become a citizens army that reportedly has received Iranian training in Syria and Iran and has operated beside regular Syrian army units. It helps relieve army units from policing duties and bolsters pro-government forces, which have suffered high losses.
Kasab has been the site of intense clashes between Islamist brigades, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front, and pro-government forces since Friday.
Fighting continued Sunday as rebels wrested control of the crossing but were unable to advance to surrounding villages. The government has mobilized large numbers of pro-government forces to retake Kasab.