Al Nusra chief calls for ceasefire after days of Syrian rebel infighting

The head of Syrian rebel outfit Jabhat Al Nusra has called for a ceasefire after days of infighting among militants

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BEIRUT // The head of a rebel group with links to Al Qaeda 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 Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

An audio recording from the leader of the powerful Jabhat Al Nusra group, 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 terrorist network and welcome foreign militants, Nusra has co-operated 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.

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

“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.

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

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.

The tension between rebels fighting to overthrow Mr Al Assad is also a problem among the political opposition, which has yet to decide on the composition of the delegation it will send to the peace conference in Switzerland on January 22.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon on Monday sent invitations to 30 countries to attend the meeting but did not include Iran, a spokesman said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet on January 13 in a bid to decide Iran’s role in ending the nearly three-year-old war, said UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq.

Russia supports the participation of Iran, a major backer of Mr Al Assad.

The United States and other western nations say Iran must first support a 2012 declaration by the major powers calling for a transitional government in Syria before it can play a front line role in the peace talks.

The role of Iran is one of many obstacles that have bedevilled efforts by Mr Ban and UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to organise the conference.

“Iran was not among the first invitations,” Mr Haq said.

The 30 countries on the list do include Saudi Arabia, a major backer of the Syrian opposition, as well as Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — the five UN Security Council permanent members — and Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

Under a UN-backed plan Syria on Tuesday moved the first batch of chemical weapon materials out of the country after transporting it from two sites to Latakia and on to a Danish vessel.

“The vessel has been accompanied by naval escorts provided by Denmark and Norway, as well as the Syrian Arab Republic,” the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said. “It will remain at sea awaiting the arrival of additional priority chemical materials at the port.”

Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal proposed by Russia and hashed out with the United States after an August 21 sarin gas attack that western nations blamed on the Assad regime. Damascus blames rebels for the attack.

Battles, bad weather, bureaucracy and technical issues had delayed a December 31 deadline for the removal of the most deadly toxins from Syria.

* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Associated Press

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