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Nusra leader urges rebels to fight on against Assad

Abu Mohamad al-Golani says rebels must choose between 'brothers' and truce amid unconfirmed reports of Nusra withdrawals from urban areas
Syrian firefighters inspect burnt-out vehicles following an alleged Russian air strike in Idlib province on 19 February (AA)

The leader of the Nusra Front on Friday rejected a partial ceasefire due to come into force within hours and called on rebel groups to step up the fight against the Syrian government and its allies.

Almost 100 rebel factions have signed up to a US and Russia-brokered “cessation of hostilities” agreement that is set to come into force at midnight local time on Saturday (22:00 GMT Friday), according to the main opposition group, with acceptance of the deal offering them protection from air strikes.

But the al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS) group are excluded from the agreement because they are considered to be terrorist organisations by the United Nations.

In an audio message published on Friday, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, the Nusra leader, said other rebel groups had to choose between their “brothers” and a truce with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"Beware of this trick from the West and America because everyone is pushing you to go back under the thumb of the oppressive regime," said Jolani.

"Fighters in Syria, willingly arm yourselves, intensify your attacks and have no fear of their troops and their aircraft."

The Nusra Front has fought alongside other rebel groups in northern Syria during the country’s near-five-year war, but its links to al-Qaeda have made it a target for air strikes by both Russia and the US-led coalition that has mostly been bombing IS.

Both Syria and Russia, which has supported a pro-government advance through northern Syria with sustained air strikes, have said they will continue to bomb “terrorist groups”.

Nusra pulls back 

Reports on Friday suggested Nusra fighters and officials were being withdrawn from some residential areas in the northern Idlib province because of concerns that areas under their control could become a main target for Russian air strikes.

One Nusra source told Middle East Eye: “This step aims to protect civilians. We don’t want Russia to have any excuse to target our residential areas with air jets.”

A Free Syrian Army source also said Nusra fighters were withdrawing from some locations in Nusra province.

The opposition Syria Direct website said that Nusra had withdrawn fighters from checkpoints and judges in the town of Sarmada, near the Turkish border.

A FSA fighter with the Northern Brigade, in Idlib told MEE they "they evacuated their military presence in the schools and delivered it to local civilian councils but never to the FSA". 

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdul Rahman, also confirmed to MEE that "Nusra had for sure left Sarmada" but he had no confirmed reports about other regions.

However, another source in Idblib told MEE that suggestions about Nusra withdrawing more widely from residential locations across Idlib province was “false”.

MEE cannot independently confirm the claims.

Russian raids 

Russian warplanes carried out intense air strikes overnight on rebel strongholds in Syria, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.

"From last night to this morning there have been Russian air strikes that are more intense than usual on rebel bastions including on Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus, in the north of Homs province and in the west of Aleppo province," Abdel Rahman said in a statement. 

Air strikes in the non-militant rebel-held Qabtan al-Jabal area of Aleppo province killed eight members of the same family including three children on Thursday night, the monitor said.

Abdel Rahman also reported that there were at least 25 air strikes on Eastern Ghouta where Jaish al-Islam is the predominant opposition faction. Simultaneously, he said, the government shelled the city of Douma.

"It's more intense than usual. It's as if they [the Russians and the government] want to subdue rebels in these regions or score points before the ceasefire," Abdel Rahman said.

A spokesperson for the Kremlin said Russia was continuing operations against "terrorist organisations" but dismissed the Observatory's reporting as unreliable.