Strike be­lieved to kill al-Qaida’s No. 2

U.S. drone mis­sile hit al-Masri’s car Sun­day, groups mon­i­tor­ing Syr­ian war say

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL - PHILIP ISSA In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Do­minique Soguel of The As­so­ci­ated Press and Weedah Hamzah of DPA.

BEIRUT — Al-Qaida’s sec­ond-in-com­mand, who goes by the name of Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, has re­port­edly been killed in a U.S. drone strike in north­west­ern Syria, a mon­i­tor­ing group said Mon­day.

A U.S. drone is be­lieved to have car­ried out the strike near a mil­i­tary base in al-Mas­toume in Idlib prov­ince, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, a pro- op­po­si­tion group that mon­i­tors the con­flict in Syria.

Also Mon­day, airstrikes in the rebel-held Idlib prov­ince killed at least 11 peo­ple, op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said, in the lat­est spate of violence to mar U.N.-bro­kered talks in Geneva be­tween the gov­ern­ment and the op­po­si­tion.

Else­where in Syria, pro-gov­ern­ment forces drove Is­lamic State mil­i­tants out of a line of vil­lages in the con­gested Turk­ish fron­tier re­gion, block­ing the path of ri­val Turk­ish-backed op­po­si­tion forces from reach­ing the de facto Is­lamic State cap­i­tal, Raqqa, op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said Mon­day.

The SITE In­tel­li­gence Group, which mon­i­tors ex­trem­ist groups, has also re­ported that al-Masri — also known as Ab­dul­lah Muham­mad Ra­jab Ab­dul­rah­man — the deputy to al-Qaida leader Ay­man al-Zawahiri, may have been killed in the U.S. airstrike on an un­marked sedan Sun­day evening. It cited re­ports cir­cu­lat­ing on ji­hadi so­cial me­dia ac­counts.

Images of the ve­hi­cle be­lieved to have been car­ry­ing al-Masri showed dam­age to the pas­sen­ger com­part­ment of the beige Kia sedan but no dam­age to the engine block. The roof was blown open on the right side of the ve­hi­cle.

The prov­ince falls largely un­der the con­trol of an al-Qaida-linked rebel coali­tion. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans dis­placed by fight­ing are liv­ing as refugees there.

Al-Masri was a close as­so­ciate of Osama bin Laden and was once the chair­man of al-Qaida’s man­age­ment coun­cil, ac­cord­ing to a Wash­ing­ton Post report cit­ing leaked U.S. in­tel­li­gence doc­u­ments dat­ing back to 2008.

Ira­nian au­thor­i­ties are be­lieved to have jailed him af­ter the 9/ 11 at­tacks be­fore re­leas­ing him in a pris­oner ex­change with al-Qaida in Ye­men in 2015.

A se­nior of­fi­cial in a ri­val ji­hadi fac­tion in north­ern Syria urged cau­tion over the re­ports, say­ing other top al-Qaida of­fi­cials in Syria had staged their own deaths only to de­fect from the group. The of­fi­cial asked not to be iden­ti­fied be­cause of ri­val­ries be­tween the var­i­ous fac­tions.

There was no im­me­di­ate com­ment from the Pen­tagon.

Gov­ern­ment forces and al­lied Hezbol­lah fight­ers mean­while cut an arc through Is­lamic State- held ter­ri­tory to reach in­de­pen­dent, Kur­dish-led forces near the Euphrates River, ef­fec­tively pre­vent­ing Turk­ish-backed Syr­ian op­po­si­tion forces from head­ing south to­ward Raqqa.

The op­po­si­tion forces, which seized al-Bab from the Is­lamic State group last week, will now have to con­front gov­ern­ment forces or the ri­val Kur­dish forces if they want to reach Raqqa, which is far­ther south­west along the Euphrates River.

Those forces are ac­com­pa­nied by a de­ploy­ment of Turk­ish troops, tanks and ar­tillery in­side Syr­ian ter­ri­tory. Tur­key says the nearby Kur­dish-led forces are ter­ror­ists.

The op­po­si­tion ac­cused the gov­ern­ment of set­ting up a buf­fer zone be­tween op­po­si­tion fight­ers and the Is­lamic State.

“The Syr­ian regime claims it is fight­ing ter­ror­ism, but it is not. It cut the path for the Free Syr­ian Army fac­tions to reach Raqqa,” said Col. Abu Fi­ras, a spokesman for the Free Syr­ian Army, a loose al­liance of main­stream rebels.

The gov­ern­ment “claims it wants to fight ter­ror­ism but in re­al­ity it wants ter­ror­ism to stay put be­cause an end to ter­ror­ism would mean the end of regime,” he said.

He spoke af­ter an op­po­si­tion del­e­ga­tion met Mon­day with U.N. me­di­a­tor Staffan de Mis­tura to con­tinue talks aimed at re­solv­ing Syria’s 6-year- old war. The talks, which be­gan last week, have so far been stuck on the agenda.

The gov­ern­ment in­sists that the talks should start with an agree­ment on the need to fight ter­ror­ism, while the op­po­si­tion wants to dis­cuss a po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion.

Back in Idlib, the ac­tivist-run Bal­adi News network pub­lished footage of res­cuers search­ing for vic­tims in the rub­ble of a block de­stroyed in pre­sumed gov­ern­ment or Rus­sian airstrikes Mon­day, in the town of Areeha.

The Syr­ian Civil De­fense search-and-res­cue group said it had counted 15 fa­tal­i­ties.

The Ob­ser­va­tory said at least seven civil­ians and four other uniden­ti­fied vic­tims had been killed. It blamed the at­tack on gov­ern­ment war­planes.

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