BEIRUT (AP) — Several prominent Syrian rebel groups called on two armed opposition factions, one linked to al-Qaida and the other to the more moderate Western-backed opposition, to end days of deadly infighting in northern Syria.
The clashes between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Northern Storm Brigade around the town of Azaz near the Turkish border have been among the worst instances of rebel-on-rebel violence in Syria's civil war. The infighting threatens to undermine the opposition as it seeks to achieve its main goal of overthrowing President Bashar Assad's regime.
In a statement released late Wednesday, six rebel groups urged ISIL and the Northern Storm Brigade to "cease fire immediately" and resolve their differences before an Islamic court. The appeal also called on the al-Qaida-linked ISIL to withdraw its fighters to areas where they were before the clashes in Azaz erupted late last month.
The area is part of vast swath of territory that rebels seized from government troops over the past year.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said that the appeal's signatories included the Islamic Army, the Tawheed Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham — three of the most powerful rebel groups.
Al-Qaida-linked fighters in Syria have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, and they frequently fight alongside more moderate rebel brigades against government forces. But Islamic extremist fighters and more mainstream rebels have turned their guns on each other, and turf wars and retaliatory killings have evolved into ferocious battles that have effectively become a war within a war in northern and eastern Syria, leaving hundreds dead on both sides.
The rebel infighting has added yet another layer to Syria's multi-faceted civil war, and coupled with the broader violence of the conflict is one of the major challenges facing international inspectors who arrived in the country this week to oversee the destruction of the government's chemical arsenal.
On Thursday, an advance team of disarmament experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons carried out its second full day of work in the country. Their mission — endorsed by a U.N. Security Council resolution last week — is to scrap Syria's capacity to manufacture chemical weapons by Nov. 1 and to destroy Assad's entire stockpile by mid-2014.
A convoy of three U.N. vehicles left from a hotel in central Damascus on Thursday with nine experts from the Netherlands-based chemical weapons watchdog, but it was not clear where they were heading. The team now consists of an advance group of 19 experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and 14 U.N. staff members who arrived on Tuesday. A second group of inspectors is to join them within a week.
Their daily work has been shrouded in as much secrecy as is possible in Syria. Their mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held Damascus suburbs in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used.
The U.S. and its allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible for the attack, while Damascus blames the rebels. The U.S. has said it killed 1,400 people. Death toll estimates by activists and rights groups are significantly lower, but still in the hundreds.
The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule before gradually turning into an armed uprising and a civil war that has killed at least 100,000 people. More than four million Syrians have been displaced inside the country, and over two million more have fled to neighboring countries including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Also Thursday, an international human rights organization released a report saying that according to its estimate, Assad's government is unlawfully holding tens of thousands of regime opponents and torturing many in custody.
Human Rights Watch said that those in custody include medics who treated wounded protesters, businessmen who raised money for displaced Syrians and even software developers who worked with citizen journalists. The New York-based group offered accounts of 21 Syrians who had been detained and who said they were beaten in custody with batons, cables and metal rods.
The report also cited some as saying they were sexually abused and raped in custody.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.