A wave of tit-for-tat kidnappings between rival Islamic militant groups in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo risks sparking large-scale internal fighting between rebels after clashes killed at least four militants earlier this week, activists said on Saturday.

The director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said a coalition of rebel groups known as the Judicial Council had accused another armed Opposition faction, the Ghurabaa al-Sham, of plundering factories in Aleppo’s industrial neighbourhood. Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial centre, is split between rebel and Government control.

Any internal fighting between rebels in the city would play into the hands of the regime, which is trying to tarnish the image of the Opposition by saying it is dominated by extremists linked to al-Qaida network.

Aleppo, a city of 3 million that was once a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, has been engulfed in heavy fighting since rebels launched an assault there in July and captured several neighbourhoods. Over the past few weeks, regime forces have been pursuing an offensive in the city, mainly focused on pushing the rebels from around the international airport and a nearby military air base.

Abdul-Rahman said tensions among rebel factions have been rising in Opposition-held areas, mostly on the eastern side of the city.

The two groups, the Judicial Council and the Ghurabaa al-Sham, clashed on Tuesday near Aleppo in fighting that left four members of the Judicial Council dead, Abldul-Rahman said.

The Judicial Council is now holding dozens of members of Ghurabaa al-Sham captive, he added.

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