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Syrian footballer, singer and rebel Abd al-Basset al-Sarout killed in northern Syria

Sarout was a symbol for the Syrian opposition after he quit his career as a keeper to fight against Bashar al-Assad's forces. He was 27 years old.
Syrian rebel fighter Abdel-Basset al-Sarout, left, sings on 15 March 15 during a rally to commemorate the beginning of the Syrian revolution, in the town of Maaret al-Numan in the Idlib province (AFP)

A Syrian goalkeeper turner rebel fighter who starred in an award-winning documentary died on Saturday of wounds sustained when fighting pro-government forces in northwestern Syria, his faction and a war monitor said.

Abd al-Basset al-Sarout, 27, was a goalkeeper from the central city of Homs, who became its most popular singer of protest songs after the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011.

Following a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protests, he took up arms against the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sarout starred in the documentary Return to Homs by Syrian director Talal Derki, which tracked his evolution from protest leader to fighter, and won a top prize at the Sundance film festival in 2014.

Jameel al-Saleh, the commander of the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza, announced Sarout's death in a message on Twitter, describing him as a "martyr" who died "fighting for the sake of God". The message was accompanied by a video showing Sarout singing "We will be back, Homs".

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sarout was wounded in clashes in the northern Hama countryside in the night of Thursday to Friday while fighting in the ranks of Jaish al-Izza.

"He died of his wounds on Saturday," the head of the Britain-based Observatory, Rami Abdel Rahman, said.

Sarout was evacuated from Homs in 2014 under a surrender deal with pro-government forces to end a two-year siege of its historical centre, according to the Observatory.

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His father and four of his siblings were killed during bombardment and clashes in Homs, it said.

On Saturday, Syrian activists and opposition figures, as well as their supporters, took to Twitter to mourn the loss of the footballer turned fighter.

"The goalkeeper of freedom, the icon of Homs, the bard of the squares, the unforgettable sound of the Syrian revolution has been martyred," researcher and opposition supporter Ahmad Abazeed said.

Hadi al-Bahra, a member of the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission, posted: "Sarout will remain alive."

"He died hoping to realise the dreams of Syrians," he added.

Sarout was wounded in the push to take the village of Tal Maleh from pro-Assad forces, the Observatory said.

The village lies on the southwestern edge of the Idlib region, which is dominated by an alliance led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Almost half of the region's three million residents have been displaced from other parts of the war-torn country, including after deals to return government control to those areas.

Late Thursday, HTS and rebel allies launched a counterattack against government forces in the north of Hama province, after weeks of deadly regime bombardment on the Idlib region.

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More than 100 fighters have since been killed, according to the Observatory.

The Idlib region is supposed to be protected by a months-old buffer zone deal, but Assad and his ally Russia have ramped up air strikes and rocket fire on the area since late April.

More than 300 civilians have been killed in that bombardment, according to the Observatory, and the United Nations says the violence has forced 270,000 people to flee their homes.

While Assad has been calling for Syrians who fled abroad to come back to the country, the Washington Post reported last week that many were being detained, interrogated and torture upon their return - a sign that, as an Assad victory seems all but guaranteed, his government has far from renounced its repressive practices.