DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian state television said Friday that the leader of the hard-line Islamist group Nusra Front was killed during clashes with government troops in rural Latakia province.
The television gave no details about the death of Abu Mohammad al-Golani, the head of the Al-Qaeda-inspired group, which was designated as a terrorist organization late last year by the United States.
In April, Golani denied that the Nusra Front had merged with the other Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. The two groups have maintained a tenuous relationship in the months since, alternating between cooperation and clashing in various parts of Syria.
Earlier, a car bomb exploded outside a mosque in rural Damascus as government troops killed at least 40 opposition fighters in an ambush elsewhere in the capital.
Twenty were killed and dozens wounded in the bomb after Friday prayers in the town of Souk Wadi Barada, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists and other witnesses.
The town is under rebel control, but troops loyal to President Bashar Assad were positioned just outside it, the group said.
Anti-regime activists blamed the attack on government forces, while state news agency SANA said “the car exploded while the terrorists were packing it with explosives.”
The Observatory said at least three of the dead were children, and SANA said a 7-year-old child was killed.
Anti-government activists also posted several videos purporting to show rebels defusing a second car bomb, in the village of al-Hameh, near the site of the Souk Wadi Barada blast.
Assad’s forces have been gaining ground in rebel-held areas around the capital, and have made progress against outgunned and fragmented fighters in several areas.
SANA said 40 rebels were killed in the ambush near Otaiba to the east of the capital. Soldiers seized a large arms cache, including anti-tank rockets from the rebels, the agency said.
The state-run Al-Ikhbariya television station broadcast footage showing more than a dozen bodies near the largely dried-out Otaiba lake, some wearing flak jackets strapped with ammunition. Automatic rifles and hand grenades lay nearby.
“Eastern Ghouta is a graveyard of terrorists,” read a scroll on the broadcast.
“It was a highly accurate operation,” an unidentified army officer told the channel. “We will be moving from one victory to another.”
The Observatory said at least 24 fighters, some of them foreign, were killed in the ambush. It gave no further details and the differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled.
North of Damascus, rebels and government forces clashed for a fifth consecutive day in the Christian town of Sadad, trapping hundreds of residents. Al-Qaeda-linked groups captured a checkpoint earlier in the week that gave them control of the western part of the town.
Elsewhere, the Observatory said Kurdish gunmen made advances in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hassakeh. The Kurdish militiamen entered the town of Yaaroubieh Friday, clashing with several jihadist groups, including Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Nusra Front.
Rebel-held Yaaroubieh lies along one of the main border crossing points into Iraq and its capture would give the Kurdish militiamen a direct supply line from Iraq’s northern Kurdish region.
Both the government and rebels want to strengthen their position on the ground ahead of the talks, expected next month. No final date has been set, however, and it is unclear whether the sides will reach an agreement on the agenda.
The Supreme Military Council, the Turkey-based leadership of the Free Syrian Army, said it refused to sit down with officials involved in killing Syrians.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met the head of the mainstream FSA and other commanders Thursday as part of a regional tour aimed at rallying support for the talks.
FSA chief General Salim Idriss “reaffirmed that we are all striving for a solution and for the bloodshed to stop,” his spokesman Louay Moqdad said Friday.
According to Moqdad, Idriss “insisted the FSA wants a democratic, free state in Syria, the fall of the [Assad] regime, the establishment of a transitional government and for the criminals to be tried.”
“We want a solution, but it must begin with making the killers accountable,” Moqdad said.
The stance was echoed in Friday’s nationwide protests, held under the slogan “The solution is in the Hague, not Geneva,” a reference to a proposal to try Assad at the International Criminal Court.
At least 125 people were killed across the country, the Local Coordination Committees activist network said.