Al-Qaida fighters have expelled rival rebels from a northern Syrian town after heavy clashes.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's seizure of the town of al-Bab is part of a brutal battle between the group and rebels from Islamist and more moderate factions that has raged across opposition-held territory in northern Syria for the past 11 days. The rebel-on-rebel clashes are the most serious since the Syrian civil war began, and have further muddied an already complicated conflict less than two weeks ahead of a planned international peace conference for Syria in Switzerland.
The pace and scale of the rebel war-within-a-war has eclipsed even that of the opposition's fight against president Bashar Assad, with at least 700 people killed since the infighting began on January 3, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Many civilians have welcomed the fight against the "Islamic State," which alienated large chunks of the public with brutal tactics such as kidnappings, extortion and beheadings as it sought to impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
Fighters from the "Islamic State" captured al-Bab on Monday morning and quickly moved to solidify their grip on the town north east of the city of Aleppo, the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Centre activist group said.
"The Islamic state is going house by house to check who is a rebel fighter, who is a civilian," said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman. "They have arrested tens of rebel fighters and civilians supporting them."
The Observatory said fighters from the extremist group used mosque loudspeakers to call on people to hand over their weapons, and told residents that they came to apply Islamic law. At the same time, the group also set up checkpoints on roads into and out of the city, and its gunmen were scrutinizing the IDs of travelers passing through.
The infighting has been ruthless, and there have been several reported mass killings of detainees, including last week at a hospital in Aleppo.
The latest reported case is in the adjacent province of Raqqa, where the "Islamic State" killed at least 46 fighters from a rival ultra-conservative Islamist brigade known as Ahrar al-Sham, Abdurrahman said.
On Sunday Ahrar al-Sham accused the "Islamic State" of killing 100 Ahrar detainees in Raqqa.
The rebel infighting comes ahead of an international conference planned to convene in Switzerland. The gathering aims to broker a political solution to the Syrian civil war. But the prospects for success at the peace talks appear dim, and it remains unclear whether they will indeed take place.
Assad has flatly rejected the idea of handing over power in the talks, while the Western-backed opposition in exile, known as the Syrian National Coalition, is in disarray and not yet decided whether it will attend the gathering. Even if it does, it is in no position to wrest concessions from Assad, whose forces have seized the momentum in recent months.