BEIRUT: The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has denied it was behind the killing of a prominent Al-Qaeda figure last week and appeared to reject an ultimatum from its rival the Nusra Front to accept mediation or face all-out assault.
ISIS was responding to the killing last Sunday of Abu Khaled al-Suri, who was close to both Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri and his predecessor Osama bin Laden.
Rival Islamist fighters blamed ISIS, locked in conflict for more than a year with other rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad, for Suri’s death.
Two days after his killing, the head of Al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, the Nusra Front, warned ISIS militants to accept the arbitration of Muslim scholars within five days to end their infighting or face a war which would wipe them out.
That deadline has expired.
“We did not order Abu Khaled’s killing nor were we ordered to. We were completely cut off from the area he was in,” ISIS said in a statement dated Saturday and posted on Islamist Internet sites.
“We affirm that the decisions and stances of the Islamic State are only issued by our leader ... [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi, may God protect him, and from the Shura Committee. Not from individual scholars or soldiers.”
More than 3,000 people have been killed this year in fighting between rebel groups and ISIS militants controlling northern and eastern Syria, an internal conflict which has seriously hampered their military campaign against Assad’s forces.
Abu Khaled, a native of Aleppo who had spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, was sent to Syria to try to end the internecine war, rebels say.
In recent days, ISIS has withdrawn from or lost positions in rural Aleppo, such as the town of Azaz near the border with Turkey.
They withdrew toward Al-Bab and Manbij east of Aleppo, and to their stronghold in the eastern city of Raqqa, said an Aleppo-based activist who uses the name Abu Raed.
As the Islamic State fighters withdrew, residents found at least two mass graves in their wake, Syrian activists said. It appeared the dead were Syrian rebels belonging to rival brigades or activists, Abu Raed said.
One grave near a bombed flour mill contained 17 bodies, said Rami Abdel-Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The other had five, he said.
“Some of the bodies were tortured. Some bodies were decapitated. Some had hands cut off, feet cut off,” said an activist who identified himself as Abu Mahmoud and said he filmed residents uncovering the graves.
Abu Mahmoud and activist Abu Raed said there were five grave sites found in areas once held by ISIS, but said there could be more.
Both activists said residents would never allow Islamic State fighters to return. “There is no going back against the Islamic State,” Abu Raed said. Rebels “will keep killing them until they are finished.”
Elsewhere, fighting that pitted rebel groups against regime troops and paramilitaries was reported in a number of locations around the country, as the Observatory said there were confirmed casualties on both sides in Deraa, Idlib, Aleppo and Deir al-Zor provinces.
Saturday’s nationwide death toll was 250 people, the Observatory said, with 171 fatalities in the ranks of the various fighting groups.
The Observatory said 13 people including a child were killed in air raids Saturday on the town of Kfar Takharim in the province of Idlib.
Video footage posted by activists showed a street engulfed in flames and rescuers trying to reach people lying amid debris of broken concrete. Two people were carried away on stretchers, one bleeding from the leg and another, their face covered, with signs of severe burns and charring to their arms and hands.