Beirut: Syria`s main Western-backed opposition group has warned that the expanding influence of al Qaeda-linked militants in the rebel movement is undermining its struggle for a free Syria.
The warning came on Friday as a cease-fire ended fighting near the Turkish border between the mainstream rebels and fighters belonging to the al-Qaida offshoot known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. During the battle, the jihadis overran the town of Azaz.
As the cease-fire took hold, al Qaeda militants fought heavy street battles against Kurdish gunmen in northern Syria.
The infighting was some of the worst in recent months between forces seeking to bring down President Bashar Assad, and it threatened to further fragment an opposition movement outgunned by the regime.
The Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, condemned ISIL in a strongly worded statement, saying the jihadis` push to establish an Islamic state goes against the principles of the Syrian revolution.
"ISIL no longer fights the Assad regime. Rather, it is strengthening its positions in liberated areas at the expense of the safety of civilians," the statement said. "ISIL is inflicting on the people the same suppression of the Baath party and the Assad regime."
Al Qaeda-linked fighters in Syria have been some of the most effective forces on the battlefield, fighting alongside the rebels` Free Syrian Army against government forces. But the two factions 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.
Late Thursday, fighters from ISIL and the Free Syrian Army agreed on an immediate cease-fire in Azaz, activists and opposition groups said. The two sides also agreed to free fighters captured by each side, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The deal calls for setting up a checkpoint between the two sides. They also agreed to take disputes before an Islamic council that would soon be established.
The fighting in Azaz and the prospect of al Qaeda militants so close to the frontier prompted Turkey to close a nearby border crossing.