BEIRUT — Members of an Al Qaeda breakaway group withdrew Friday from parts of the northern province of Aleppo, ahead of a Saturday deadline issued by another rebel group that could spark more infighting, opposition activists said.
Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant evacuated from several towns north of Aleppo, including Azaz near the Turkish border, Aleppo-based activists who go by the names of Ibrahim Saeed and Abu Raed said. Rival fighters moved in shortly after, the activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The pullout came three days after the leader of a powerful Al Qaeda-linked group in Syria gave the Islamic State a five-day ultimatum to accept mediation by leading clerics to end infighting or be “expelled” from the region.
The ultimatum, announced in an audio recording by the leader of the Nusra Front, aims to end two months of deadly violence between the Islamic State and other Islamic factions that activists say has killed more than 3,000 people. The infighting is undermining the opposition fighters’ wider struggle against President Bashar Assad’s government.
There has been no official reaction from the Islamic State, but it most likely will reject the ultimatum, possibly leading to more deadly battles in the coming days.
Saeed said Islamic State fighters appear to be withdrawing toward their stronghold in the northeastern city of Raqqa, the first provincial capital in Syria to fall to the rebels. The Islamic State’s shadowy leader, known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once called it the group’s capital.
Saeed added that Islamic State fighters torched a power station in the town of Tal Rifaat and dismantled Al-Faisal Mills, one of the largest flour mills in Aleppo province, before they left.
“I expect battles in the near future,” Saeed said. He said rebels who entered the abandoned territory questioned former Islamic State members who defected for fears of their being in “sleeper cells.”
“Northern parts of Aleppo are free of the Islamic State,” said Abu Raed, who added that they blew up some helicopters in the army air base of Mannagh that rebels captured last year.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed members of the Northern Storm Brigade, which was crushed by the Islamic State last year, taking over posts evacuated by the jihadis.
“The Northern Storm returned to Azaz and, God willing, we will step on the head of the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi,’’ a gunman driving by said.
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events.
Syria’s uprising, which largely began with peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones. Islamist extremists, including foreign fighters and Syrian rebels who have taken up hard-line, Al Qaeda-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters, dampening the West’s support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad.
That has led to a backlash by Islamist brigades and more moderate rebels who launched a war against the Islamic State.
‘The Northern Storm returned to Azaz and, God willing, we will step on the head of the Islamic State and al-Baghdadi.’Gunman appearing in video of members of the Northern Storm Brigade, posted online by activists
Also Friday, the Lebanese Army said in a statement that three rockets fired from Syria struck the predominantly Shi’ite town of Brital, causing damage but no casualties.
In Beirut, security officials said shelling from the Syrian side killed two Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a 16-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy near the border with Syria, and wounded three. Syrian warplanes also fired several missiles Friday on the edge of the Lebanese border town of Arsal without causing casualties. Such air raids have happened before in the area.