Inter-rebel clashes resume in northwest Syria after collapse of truce

Internally displaced people ride on trucks with their belongings in Afrin, Syria February 18, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

IDLIB/AMMAN, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Rival Syrian rebel groups in northwestern Syria resumed heavy clashes a day after a fragile truce ended five days of bloody fighting in the last remaining opposition enclave, residents and rebels said on Monday.

The main jihadist rebel group, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), listed as terrorists by the United States, Turkey and others, forced factions from the Turkey-backed opposition National Army to accept a peace deal on Saturday that expanded its grip.

Both sides traded accusations that they had reneged on provisions of the Turkey-brokered deal, which pulls fighters from Afrin and other cities back to their respective frontlines and paves the way for a unified civilian administration.

Intense fighting raged near rugged terrain around Kafr Jana village in northern Aleppo where both sides sent reinforcements. Residents fear the jihadist group seeks to capture the strategic border city of Azaz, the administrative centre of the mainstream Turkish-backed opposition government.

A commander in a mainstream faction that is staying on the sidelines who requested anonymity said the jihadist group was approaching the main Bab al Salamah border crossing with Turkey, northwest of Azaz.

Infighting has weakened the Syrian opposition since the start of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011. Their turf wars have helped Assad and his allies recover significant ground.

Western intelligence sources and rebels say HTS has long sought a wider economic and security role in areas in northern Syria beyond its stronghold in the heavily populated city of Idlib.

They say the goal of HTS leader Mohammad al Golani was to expand to other areas the civilian administration that now efficiently runs Idlib region's public services in an attempt to shed the militant image of the group, a former offshoot of the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.

"We are working for a project that serves everyone and the goals of the revolution that unites the liberated areas in one army and a joint administration that everyone participates in, civilians and areas," a senior Hayat Tahrir al Sham source told Reuters.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Khalil Ashawi; Editing by William Maclean

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