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ISIL makes gains in Syria against opposition opponents

ISIL have taken control of key Deir Ezzor villages as al-Nusra and FSA spar over kidnapped colonel
Some 100,000 people have been displaced in eastern Syria (AFP)

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants wrested control of several strategically key villages in Syria's Deir Ezzor from rival al-Nusra militants on Sunday, activists said, as fierce fighting continued between the two groups in the eastern parts of the country.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIL made gains in the western part of the province, while government forces continued to shell the northeast of the province following a rebel assault killed scores of soldiers in an ambush last week.

The upswing in violence in the large, but relatively sparsely populated province, has already caused some 100,000 people to flee their homes in recent weeks.

Tensions are also high on Syria’s southern frontier, where al-Nusra is currently at odds with the Free Syrian Army over the fate of Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh, a FSA commander who was kidnapped by al-Nusra on his way back from Jordan last week.  

A video of Nehmeh confessing to purposefully orchestrating an opposition defeat last year at the behest of the opposition’s international backers has since been posted online, with al-Nusra insisting that they try Nehmeh for treason in a Sharia court.

The FSA, however, has demanded that Nehmeh, who appeared with cuts and bruises on his face in the video, be transferred to their custody. Nehmeh defected from President Bashar al-Assad’s air force before taking charge of the disastrous Khirbet Ghazaleh battle, which ended in an opposition defeat after a string of initial gains. The campaigns failure has been seen as suspicious by many in the opposition ever since.

While sources on both sides have been quoted as saying they want to stay united against Assad, a further FSA commander, Zuhair Dabo, was captured on Thursday, while a deadline for the transfer has gone unheeded.

“The reality we are now facing in the south is to see fighting between rebels like we have seen in the north, we’re worried that the Aleppo scenario is going to happen here now,” a senior FSA commander told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, The National.

Another leading FSA officer from Deraa also said moderate factions were ready to fight al-Nusra if necessary over Col Nehmeh, in order to uphold the principle that the al Qaeda-affiliated group cannot simply detain commanders of other rebel outfits at will.

“We don’t want to go to war with Nusra - we should all be fighting Assad. But we are prepared to take action if we must,” the FSA officer told The National. “Nusra is testing us and want to see how we will react to their arrest of Nehmeh. They are playing a very dangerous game. We will negotiate because we do not want unnecessary bloodshed but if they do not hand him over, there will be serious repercussions.”