Syrian rebels pushed into a strategic neighbourhood in the northern city of Aleppo after days of heavy clashes, seizing control of at least part of the hilltop district and killing a pro-government Sunni Muslim cleric captured in the fighting, activists and state media said on Saturday.
While there were conflicting reports about the scale of the rebel advance into the Sheik Maqsoud neighbourhood, the gains marked the biggest shift in the front lines in the embattled city of Aleppo in months. The city, Syria’s largest and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the country’s civil war since rebels launched an offensive on it in July, seizing several districts before the fighting largely settled into a bloody stalemate.
The Aleppo Media Centre opposition group and Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels seized full control of Sheik Maqsoud late Friday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said rebels took only the eastern part of the neighbourhood, and reported heavy fighting there on Saturday.
Sheik Maqsoud, which is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds, is located on a hill on the northern edge of the city, making it a strategic location overlooking Aleppo.
The Observatory said rebels captured a pro-government Sunni Muslim cleric in the fighting, killed him and then paraded his body around the neighbourhood.
State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV identified the cleric as Hassan Seifeddine. It said he was beheaded and his head was placed on the minaret of Al-Hassan Mosque where he used to lead the prayers.
The SANA state news said Seifeddine’s body was “mutilated” after the “assassination”.
The reports of the mutilation of the cleric’s body could not be independently confirmed.
The killing of Seifeddine comes nearly 10 days after a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque in the heart of the Syrian capital of Damascus, killing top Sunni preacher Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti as he was giving a sermon. The March 21 blast killed 48 others and wounded dozens.
Al-Buti, like Seifeddine, was a strong supporter of the Assad regime, which is dominated by members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The opposition is made up of mostly Sunnis, who are the majority among Syrians.
Extremists have been playing a bigger role among the rebel groups. They include the Islamic Jabhat al-Nusra, a powerful offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has claimed responsibility for most of the deadliest suicide bombings against regime and military facilities and, as a result, has gained popularity among some rebels.
A photograph recently posted online by activists showed the turbaned Seifeddine, who was in his late 50s, with a white beard. “A wanted agent,” read a banner posted over the picture. Another referred to him as wanted by the rebels and read: “An agent of Syria’s ruling gang and wanted by the Free Syrian Army.”
Aleppo-based Sunni cleric Abdul-Qadir Shehabi told state-run TV that Seifeddine’s son was kidnapped months ago. Shehabi also lashed out at the rebels, saying they “mutilated” Seifeddine’s body.
“Is this the freedom that they talk about? This is the freedom of Satan,” Mr. Shehabi said, referring to rebels who say they are fighting Assad’s regime because it is authoritarian.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said Seifeddine’s name had been put on an opposition “death list.”
“He was the imam of a mosque. He was not armed when he was killed,” Abdul-Rahman said. “We cannot close our eyes when the opposition violates human rights.”
Elsewhere in Syria, activists reported violence in areas the southern province of Daraa, the suburbs of Damascus and the northern regions of Idlib and Raqqa. The Observatory said the heaviest clashes were in Raqqa and Sheik Maqsoud.
Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the Sheik Maqsoud fighting killed 14 pro-government gunmen, seven rebels, 10 civilians and Seifeddine.
In Damascus, residents said power was cut on Saturday in some neighbourhoods. Al-Ikhbariya TV quoted Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis as saying the network suffered a technical problem and it will be fixed in the next 24 hours.
Damascus has witnessed repeated cuts in the past months.