Ex-Qaeda affiliate battles rebels in north Syria
IDLIB - Al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria battled a range of rebel groups in the north of the country on Tuesday, as the government and opposition wrapped up new peace talks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, said the clashes began early in the day with an attack by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front on a base belonging to the Jaish al-Mujahideen faction.
Fateh al-Sham, previously known as Al-Nusra Front, is listed internationally as a "terrorist" group, despite formally renouncing its affiliation with Al-Qaeda in 2016.
But it has also been a key partner at times for rebel groups in Syria, and it leads a powerful alliance that controls all of Syria's Idlib province.
Despite the ties, tensions have occasionally flared between the jihadist group and other rebel forces, which accuse Fateh al-Sham of seeking hegemony.
The morning attack prompted further clashes which continued Tuesday afternoon along the border between Idlib province and northern Aleppo province, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
Rockets fired during the fighting killed five members of a family, most of them children and women, he added.
The monitor said Fateh al-Sham had seized territory from rebel groups in Aleppo, while rebels advanced against the jihadist group in Idlib.
There was no official statement from either side on what sparked the clashes, which came after days of tension in Idlib and Aleppo provinces, including infighting between other rebel groups.
But Fateh al-Sham has been hit in recent weeks by a series of deadly air strikes, most believed to have been carried out by the US-led coalition fighting jihadists.
Abdel Rahman said the group appeared to believe that local rebels were providing coordinates for the air strikes.
The latest clashes come as Syria's government and rebel groups conclude fresh peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, building on a ceasefire in force since December 30.
Fateh al-Sham is excluded from the ceasefire and has rejected the negotiating process, creating fresh tensions with opposition groups.
The powerful Ahrar al-Sham faction, a close ally of Fateh al-Sham in Idlib, declined to take part in the talks, saying it wanted to avoid isolating the former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
But on Tuesday, its fighters were battling the group, and a leading Ahrar al-Sham official warned Fateh al-Sham that it was "at a crossroads".
"It either completely joins the revolution or it is a new Daesh," said Labib al-Nahhas on Twitter, using an Arabic acronym for IS.
Syria's civil war has killed more than 310,000 people and displaced millions from their homes since it started in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.