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Head of Syria research centre is killed in car bombing

Director of facility in Masyaf that Western countries say was part of a chemical weapons programme died near city of Hama
Asber was killed along with his driver on Saturday night, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said

The director of a Syrian research facility that Western countries say was part of a chemical weapons programme has been killed after his car was blown up, the pro-Syrian government newspaper al-Watan has said.

Aziz Asber was the head of the Syrian Scientific Research Centre in Masyaf, near the city of Hama.

According to the United States sarin gas was being developed at the centre, a claim denied by Syrian authorities who say the country does not possess any chemical weapons after a 2013 agreement to hand over its chemical arsenal.

"[Asber] died after an explosion targeted his car in the Hama countryside," al-Watan said in an online report on Sunday.

The attack on Asber was claimed by a Syrian rebel group affiliated to Tahrir al-Sham, another rebel group. It includes the group formerly known as the Nusra Front, which served as al-Qaeda's Syrian branch.

The Abu Amara Brigades released a statement on their Telegram online channel that said they "planted explosive devices" which detonated and killed Asber.

The explosion occurred on Saturday night and Asber was killed along with his driver, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said that experts from Syria's ally Iran were present at the Masyaf centre, which was developing short-range surface-to-surface missiles.

"The general was close to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to Iran," Abdel Rahman said.

The Masyaf facility has previously been hit by what the Syrian government said were Israeli strikes in July and last year in September .

In April, missile strikes by the United States, Britain and France destroyed a Syrian Scientific Research Centre facility in Damascus, in response to a suspected poison gas attack .

The Syrian government, backed by Russia, has denied using, or possessing, chemical weapons.

Several air strikes on the Masyaf research centre have been attributed to Israel in recent years, the last of which was on 22 July.

An Israeli government official declined to comment on reports of Asber's death when asked by the Reuters news agency.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since the start of Syria's civil war in 2011.