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Syria rebel group names new chiefs after blast kills leaders

After a blast reportedly kills most of the leadership of the Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham on Tuesday, Hashem al-Sheikh is named as the group's new leader
Ahrar al-Sham fighters in a training session last September in Syria (AFP)

Syria's Islamist Ahrar al-Sham rebel brigade named new chiefs on Wednesday after a devastating blast that killed nearly 30 members of its leadership in northeastern Idlib province near the Turkish border.

The blast on Tuesday evening killed the key rebel group's leader Hassan Abboud, known by the name Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi, along with 27 other top members.

The attack targeted a meeting of around 50 military and religious leaders in the basement of a house at Ram Hamdan, northeast of Idlib city.

At the meeting, the leaders were considering whether the group should join a new rebel coalition, the Council for Leading the Revolution, which includes groups receiving aid from the US, according to a McClatchy report.

Joining the Council would have been a sea change for the group which has had such close ties to the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front that US officials were advocating that it be classifed as an international terrorist organisation, McClatchy reported.

Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center said that while some reports have claimed the attack was caused by a suicide bomber, a chemical attack or a car bomb, a government airstrike seems the most likely scenario to him.

"The airstrike set fire to an attached ammunitions depot, which consequently meant the bunker was filled with acrid smoke, causing suffocation," Lister wrote on Wednesday. "An apparent lack of bodily wounds on the victims' bodies would appear to fit this account."

No group has claimed the attack on Ahrar al-Sham's leadership and the rebel brigade has not officially pointed the finger at any organisation.

On Wednesday, in a video posted on YouTube, Ahrar al-Sham announced that Hashem al-Sheikh, known as Abu Jaber, would replace Abboud as head of the group, with Abu Saleh Tahhan as military chief.

"A group of the best chiefs of Ahrar al-Sham have been martyred. But Ahrar al-Sham is more determined than ever to continue on the path to liberating our country from dictators," the video statement said.

Ahrar al-Sham is a key component in the Islamic Front rebel coalition, which has been battling both President Bashar al-Assad's government, and militants from the Islamic State group.

All of Idlib province, with the exception of its capital, is under the control of various rebel groups after IS militants were pushed out earlier this year.

More than 180,000 people have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the conflict in March 2011.