Protests against powerful group persist in Syria's last major rebel stronghold

IDLIB, Syria (AP) — Members of a powerful insurgent group in Syria 's rebel-held northwest fired into the air and beat protesters with clubs Friday, injuring some of them as protests intensified to demand the release of detainees and an end to the group's rule.

Protests took place Friday in several areas, including the provincial capital of Idlib and major towns such as Jisr al-Shughour, Binnish and Sarmada.

They came days after Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, described the demonstrators as anarchists and told dignitaries in Syria's Idlib province to persuade them to stop protesting.

The protests, which are calling for the ouster of al-Golani, broke out in late February following the death of a member of a rebel faction, allegedly while being tortured in a jail run by HTS, which previously had links to al-Qaida. Since then, HTS released hundreds of detainees, but many remain in jails run by the group’s so-called General Security Agency.

“I came out against injustice. We don't want al-Golani and we don't want the security fist. We want the prisoners of opinion to be out” of jails, protester Mazen Ziwani told The Associated Press.

Officials at one hospital in Binnish said they had received 36 people who suffered bruises and tear gas inhalation.

After more than 13 years of civil war and more than half a million deaths, Idlib is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria.

On Tuesday, HTS members attacked protesters with clubs and sharp objects outside a military court in Idlib city, injuring several people.

Anti-HTS sentiments had been rising since a wave of arrests by the group of senior officials within the organization, which was previously known as the Nusra Front, when it was al-Qaida's branch in Syria, before changing its name several times and distancing itself from al-Qaida.

Over the years, al-Golani’s HTS crushed many of its opponents to become the strongest group in the rebel-held region that stretches to the western parts of Aleppo province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said HTS fighters closed major roads leading to Idlib city Friday to prevent the demonstrators from reaching the provincial capital.

Over the past years, HTS has been trying to distance itself from al-Qaida and market itself as a more moderate Syrian opposition group after years of strict religious rule.

In 2017, HTS set up a so-called “salvation government” to run day-to-day affairs in the region. At first, it attempted to enforce a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Religious police were tasked with making sure that women were covered, with only their faces and hands showing.

The police would force shops to close on Fridays so that people could attend the weekly prayers. Playing music was banned, as was smoking water pipes in public.