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Syrian Qaeda branch urges truce to halt rebel infighting

A rebel fighter guards a street to prevent members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from entering Jaba
A rebel fighter guards a street to prevent members of the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) from entering Jaba

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The head of an al Qaeda-linked rebel group in Syria called on Tuesday for a ceasefire between opposition factions who have clashed for five days in the bloodiest bout of infighting since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began.

An audio recording from the leader of the powerful Nusra Front, who goes by the name Abu Mohammed al-Golani, also laid much of the blame for the fighting on an al Qaeda splinter group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

While both groups have roots in the global Islamist network and welcome foreign militants, the Nusra Front has cooperated more with other rebel groups and has largely avoided the power struggles that ISIL has faced since wresting control of many opposition-held areas from other groups.

"Many rebel units have committed transgressions, just as the mistaken policies followed by played a prominent role in fuelling the conflict," Golani said. "In addition to this, there has been no agreement on legal solutions agreed upon by all major units."

ISIL has also been fighting in Iraq, where it faces an onslaught by army tanks and artillery around the city of Falluja, whose local leaders have urged the Qaeda-linked militants to leave before being attacked.

ISIL gunmen want to reconquer Iraq's Anbar province in pursuit of their goal of creating a radical Islamic state out of the chaos of neighboring Syria's civil war.

More than 274 people have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel clashes in Syria since they began Friday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group.

Golani proposed forming an Islamic legal council to resolve feuds among the rebels and called for the militants to return to their shared goal of fighting Assad's forces, as the campaign to oust the Syrian leader nears the end of its third year.

It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the audio statement, but it was posted on a Twitter account used by the Nusra Front.

LEGAL COUNCIL

"This unfortunate situation has pushed us to launch an initiative to save the battlefields from being lost. This will be done by forming an independent legal council by all the (rebel) factions in addition to a ceasefire," Golani said.

Rebel groups, many of them also hardline Islamists, last week launched what appeared to be a series of coordinated strikes against ISIL in northern and eastern Syria after months of increasing tensions with the group, which has alienated many Syrians in rebel-held regions.

In one northwestern region of Syria alone, other rebel groups appear to have killed 34 foreign fighters from ISIL, the Observatory said.

Golani urged rebels not to become divided between foreign and local fighters, arguing that all were needed to launch jihad, or holy war, in the country.

The campaign to topple Assad has degenerated into a civil war with several sectarian and ethnic struggles emerging, as well as the internecine fighting now plaguing the rebels.

Golani urged rebels to exchange prisoners and open roads to all opposition units.

"Some groups may agree to this and others are waiting until other sides agree, and other sides are putting off a response," Golani said. "There is still an opportunity to save the battlefields."

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)

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