Al-Qaida attacks headquarters of US-backed Syrian rebels
BEIRUT (AP) -- Members of al-Qaida's branch in Syria launched an attack early Friday on the command headquarters of a U.S.-backed rebel faction in northern Syria, killing at least five fighters and wounding more than a dozen, the U.S.-backed factions and an activist group said.
A statement issued in the name of the U.S.-backed group, known as Division 30, said its fighters prevented Nusra Front gunmen from storming their head office and added that fighting is still ongoing.
The fighting came a few days after the U.S. and Turkey announced the outlines of a deal to help rebels push the Islamic State group back from a strip of territory it controls along the Syrian-Turkish border, replacing it with more moderate rebels backed by Washington and Ankara.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Abdul-Jabbar Abu Thabet, commander of Aleppo Swords Battalion - a moderate faction that is fighting both Syrian government forces and IS - said members of Division 30 were trained by the U.S. in Turkey. Abu Thabet said Nusra Front has been referring to Division 30 as "agents of the Americans."
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Observatory, said that the rebel group's perceived American connection made it a target for the Nusra Front.
"They are trying to liquidate any group that has links to the West," Abdurrhman said.
The Observatory added that warplanes believed to be from the U.S.-led coalition attacked Nusra Front positions in the area.
There was no official comment about the fighting from the Nusra Front, which has in the past targeted rebel groups backed by the United States. In the past year, the extremist group has routed the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm rebel group and the Syria Revolutionary Front from their main northern strongholds in Idlib province, dealing a blow to U.S. efforts to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels.
The Observatory and Abu Thabet said Friday's fighting was concentrated south of the Syrian town of Azaz on the border with Turkey.
Nusra Front's attack came two days after the extremists abducted Col. Nadim al-Hassan, commander of Division 30 and seven of his men, according to the rebel group and the Observatory.
Abu Thabet and Division 30 said Nusra Front gathered its forces in the area near Azaz on Thursday saying that they were heading to fight Kurdish fighters in the nearby region of Ifrin. Instead, they launched an attack on the Division 30 command near Azaz, they said.
Division 30 called on the Nusra Front to stop their attack "to avoid bloodshed between Muslims."
The U.S.-backed rebel faction said five of its fighters were killed and 18 were wounded. The Observatory said eight Nusra Front fighters were killed in the fighting and the airstrikes.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.