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Clashes between anti-Bashar Assad extremists leave dozens of fighters dead in Syria

Syrian President Bashar Assad
Bassem Mroue

Clashes between two extremist factions in north-western Syria have left dozens of fighters dead on both sides and raised fears of more deadly violence between groups battling President Bashar Assad's troops.

The fighting between the al-Qaida-led coalition known as the Levant Liberation Committee and the extremist Jund al-Aqsa group left nearly 70 dead in some of the worst clashes between insurgents in years, an opposition monitoring group and a rebel commander said.

The violence, ahead of UN-brokered peace talks later this month, was centred in areas where the central province of Hama and the north-western province of Idlib meet.

A Syrian rebel commander speaking from Turkey said Jund al-Aqsa has proven recently that it is a branch of the Islamic State group that is the arch rival of al Qaida's Fatah al-Sham Front.

The commander said Jund al-Aqsa fighters stormed several areas controlled by the Levant Liberation Committee and killed some of its members, triggering intense fighting.

"There is no solution but to uproot Jund al-Aqsa," the commander said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Levant Liberation Committee has captured six villages from Jund al-Aqsa.

The Observatory said two days of fighting has left 69 fighters dead, including 39 from the Levant Liberation Committee. It said the 30 dead from Jund al-Aqsa include four suicide attackers who blew up their vehicles.

Abdul-Rahim Attoun, a senior al-Qaida religious official in Syria, blamed Jund al-Aqsa for being a group that paid allegiance to IS. He added that Jund al-Aqsa was blocking roads used by the Levant Liberation Committee to attack government forces.

A Jund al-Aqsa commander who goes by the name of Karmo said the fighting was triggered by Levant Liberation Committee attacks on Jund al-Aqsa positions.

In the southern city of Daraa, where clashes between insurgents and government forces have continued for days, opposition activist Ahmad al-Masalmeh said an air raid had hit a hospital, putting it out of service.

The fighting came as a state-run newspaper said in an editorial that a meeting between the Syrian government and opposition in Kazakhstan this week will not be "fruitful" unless they are focused on fighting terrorism.

The two-day conference in Astana that begins on Wednesday is aimed at strengthening a December 30 ceasefire. The government has long referred to all those fighting against it, including mainstream rebels, as "terrorists".

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