AMMAN (Reuters) - Rival Islamist rebel groups fought in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Monday, residents said, as local fighters tried to drive out a foreign-led al Qaeda affiliate which has also seized towns across the border in Iraq.
Activists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad said dozens of Syrian members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had changed sides to join other Sunni Islamist factions which have taken advantage of a local backlash against the ISIL and the foreign al Qaeda jihadists prominent among its commanders.
The battles in Raqqa, a provincial capital on the Euphrates river in Syria’s largely desert east, left bodies clad in the black favored by al Qaeda fighters lying in the streets. They followed similar violence elsewhere in recent days that have seen the ISIL lose manpower and abandon some of its positions.
“The ISIL has split roughly into two groups - locals who are beginning to defect and foreign fighters who seem intent on going on fighting,” Abedelrazzaq Shlas, an opposition activist in the province, told Reuters.
The fighting comes as groups in Iraq identifying themselves as ISIL have seized Sunni Muslim towns hundreds of miles away on the Euphrates in Iraq, challenging a Shi‘ite-led government in Baghdad which they see as allied, like Assad, to Shi‘ite Iran.
In Syria, other Islamist groups have sought to take advantage of resentment among local people at efforts by the ISIL to impose radical interpretations of Islamic law and social practices in areas they control.
Syrian fighters from Islamist factions Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra Front, another al Qaeda affiliate, had surrounded the main ISIL base in central Raqqa, activists said.
Speaking by satellite phone from the city, 400 km (250 miles) northeast of Damascus, activist Mohammad Izzedin said he could hear gunfire from many places.
An official from Ahrar al-Sham played down suggestions that many ISIL fighters had pulled out into the countryside, saying that ISIL men were still manning roadblocks around the city.
To the west, near the Turkish border, the ISIL has ceded ground to rival Islamists and the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. Raqqa, the only provincial capital to fall to rebels, was captured by Islamists from various groups in March last year.
A video posted on the Internet on Sunday showed several men, identifying themselves as anti-Assad rebels, who said they had been freed from a jail run by the ISIL in Raqqa. Activists said the group had held as many as 50 people who were now free.
Editing by Alastair Macdonald