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BEIRUT: Rebel groups, including the jihadist Al Nusra Front, have set up a religious council to administer affairs in the east of Syria which is mostly under their control, a rights watchdog said yesterday.
“God commanded the Islamic battalions to form a religious council in the east to administer the affairs of the people and fill a security gap,” the groups said in a statement distributed by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The council will include several offices charged with functions including justice, policing and emergency services, the statement said.
Video footage distributed by the Britain-based Observatory showed an Islamist convoy draped with black flags bearing Islamic inscriptions and driving in the Deir Ezzor area of the east.
The video shows rebels attaching a banner to a building in the town of Mayadeen, on which is written “Religious Committee of the Eastern Region.”
Rebels in the eastern provinces of Deir Ezzor, Hassaka and Raqa have made significant military gains as they battle forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad in the country’s oil-producing region.
The Al Nusra Front, completely unknown before the rebellion in Syria that began two years ago, has been a rebel standard-bearer since mid-2012 when it became the spearhead of the insurgency ahead of the Free Syrian Army.
FSA fighters, composed mainly of army deserters, have said that despite being fewer in number, the Al Nusra jihadists have better logistic and economic backing and receive financing “from abroad.”
The Front has gone for strategic targets in the east such as oil wells, and also recruits local fighters and pays them.
Al Nusra makes no secret of its aims to see Syria become an Islamist state. Damascus accuses both Saudi Arabia and Qatar of financing Islamist groups battling the Assad regime.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that the number of Syrian refugees, which has already passed the million mark, could double or triple by the end of the year. Guterres said the UNHCR could only “mitigate” the suffering of the people but the responsibility to find a solution fell on “those that have political responsibilities.”
“Now if this escalation goes on and nothing happens to solve the problem we might have in the end of the year a much larger number of refugees: twice or three times the present level,” Guterres told reporters in Ankara.
Meanwhile, insurgents launched a surprise dawn raid yesterday to retake a key district of the central city of Homs.
Activists said the raid sparked fierce fighting on the ground and saw President Assad’s forces call in air strikes in a bid to repulse the rebel fighters.
They said the attack was a bid to take pressure off other rebel-held areas following the launch last week of a widescale army offensive in Homs, which has been dubbed ‘capital of the revolution’ against Assad’s forces.
Regime troops seized Baba Amr from rebels just over a year ago after a bloody month-long siege that left the district in ruins and claimed hundreds of lives, including those of two foreign journalists.
“We announce the ‘great victory battle’ to liberate neighbourhoods (controlled by the army), namely Baba Amr, and ease the pressure on our comrades and on besieged Homs districts,” a rebel said in a video posted on the Internet.
Omar, an activist who is in touch with the insurgents, said rebels infiltrated Baba Amr under cover of darkness. “Those manning the army checkpoints barely had time to realise what was going on,” he said.
The army later massed reinforcements around Baba Amr, Omar said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops sealed off several streets around Baba Amr amid shelling and clashes in the district, with air raids following hours later. Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the “surprise” dawn assault came after troops had reduced their presence in Baba Amr to target other rebel-held districts.AFP