The Syrian army carried out an operation that killed the military commander of the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front on Thursday, the group confirmed Friday.
Abu Humam al-Shami was killed by an explosion during a meeting of Nusra Front leaders in Idlib province. Insurgent sources said at least three other Nusra Front commanders were killed in the blast.
A spokesman for the Nusra Front confirmed the death on a prominent militant website Friday, and said the other two deaths were his body guards, not commanders.
The Syrian state news agency SANA, quoting its correspondent, said Thursday that Abu Humam and a number of other Nusra leaders had been killed in an army operation targeting the meeting held in the village of Hobait in a rural area of Idlib.
Insurgent sources said the targeted meeting had been held in Salqin, some 100 km to the north of Hobait.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that tracks the war, said there was conflicting information on where Abu Humam had been killed.
SANA also cited a military source saying the army had carried out “concentrated strikes” against Nusra and other militant groups in the Abu al-Dhuhur area, which lies to the northeast of Hobait.
Nusra defeated U.S.-backed rebels
Insurgent sources initially said the U.S.-led alliance had killed Abu Humam in an air strike. But a coalition spokesman said it had not conducted air strikes in the province during the past 24 hours.
The U.S. has been carrying out airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, a rival of the Nusra Front, and has on several occasions struck a cell within Nusra that U.S. officials say was plotting attacks against the West.
The Nusra Front controls large parts of northern Syria and Idlib province in particular, and has seized territory from other more moderate rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. Most recently, it has clashed with the U.S.-backed Hazm group, which later dissolved itself.
Leaders of the Nusra Front are considering cutting their links with al-Qaeda to form a new entity backed by some Gulf states trying to topple Assad, sources have said.
Regime drops more barrel bombs
Earlier Thursday, Syrian government helicopter gunships bombed the northern city of Aleppo, killing at least 18 people and wounding dozens, activists said.
The bombings came as Syrian President Bashar Assad vehemently denied in an interview with Portuguese state television that his military drops crude explosives known as barrels bombs on civilians.
“You are talking about massive propaganda,” Assad said in the interview.
The aerial attack on a rebel-held neighbourhood was in apparent reprisal for an attack the day before by opposition fighters against a building used by the government’s state intelligence services.
Syrian aircraft have dropped hundreds of barrel bombs over the course of the civil war, killing thousands of civilians and causing widespread destruction. The crude tactic — which often involves hurling explosives-filled canisters from helicopters — has been widely criticized by human rights groups because the bombs are not precise.