DAMASCUS/BEIRUT: Syrian rebels overran the Aleppo headquarters of the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) Wednesday, as claims had emerged that the group had massacred prisoners there in cold blood.
The setback came a day after its spokesman threatened to “crush” opposition fighters who have attacked the group in several provinces.
On the ground, ISIS battled moderate and Islamist rebels in clashes that first erupted Friday and have since killed at least 400 people.
Announcing the new toll as of the end of Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it included 56 civilians.
ISIS’ headquarters in a hospital in the Qadi Askar neighborhood of Aleppo was overrun by opposition fighters, who freed several hundred prisoners. But a video posted online Wednesday claimed ISIS had previously executed at least nine prisoners after handcuffing, blindfolding and shooting them in the head.
While recording the images, the cameraman was heard saying: “This was done by ISIS. Are the victims apostates? No, they’re Muslims.”
On the footage, purportedly shot at the headquarters, another voice was heard: “These are the same acts carried out by the shabbiha [pro-regime militia]. They were all shot in the eye or the head.”
One Shahba Press activist told AFP “dozens of prisoners were freed but dozens of others were executed Monday or Tuesday by ISIS during the assault on their HQ” at the hospital.
Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman called the killings a war crime. “Such acts confirm what we have already said – ISIS commits war crimes, crimes against humanity, and does the opposite of its claim that it came here to help the Syrian people.”
“The people of Syria want to get rid of a dictatorship and embrace democracy, not a new dictatorship in Islamic garb,” he said.
“At the same time, we condemn the executions of ISIS members. The Observatory will continue to report all war crimes and crimes against humanity no matter who carried them out.”Of the Observatory’s estimate of 131 ISIS militants killed in the fighting, 47 were summarily executed by rebels.
ISIS also resorted to several car bomb attacks against rebels – in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama and Raqqa provinces – while a car bomb attack by an ISIS militant in Aleppo city was foiled, the Observatory said.
A security source in Damascus told AFP the infighting benefited the regime.
“We are the beneficiaries in this situation,” he said, calling the fighting a way for nations backing different rebel groups to “settle scores.”
ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani issued a defiant message late Tuesday, urging fighters to “crush them [the rebels] totally and kill the conspiracy at birth.” His message came hours after the head of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra Front, urged an end to the fighting.
Regime operations continued, with the Observatory reporting at least eight people killed in air raids on Tal Rifaat in Aleppo province.
Meanwhile, preparations continued for the Geneva II peace conference, scheduled for Jan. 22.
In Berlin, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he backed Iranian involvement in the conference, which is aimed at ending the brutal war in Syria. “My position is that we should try to include the neighbors – Iran too,” he said after talks with his Swedish counterpart Carl Bildt.
U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon did not include Iran in his invitations to 30 countries to the gathering. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested Iran could play a role in the Syria conference from the “sidelines” but Tehran has scoffed at the suggestion, saying it would only accept offers that respect the country’s “honor.”
Kerry and Steinmeier are scheduled to travel to Paris this weekend, for a meeting of ministers from the “Friends of Syria” group of countries and leaders of the mainstream opposition to Assad ahead of the Swiss talks.
The opposition-in-exile, the National Coalition, has postponed until next week a decision on whether to attend Geneva II.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that while in Paris, Kerry also will update Arab League officials on attempts to negotiate a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinian authorities. He will then travel to Kuwait, to urge an international conference to help raise humanitarian aid for the victims of the Syrian war.