DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked group in Syria gave a rival breakaway group a five-day ultimatum to accept arbitration by leading clerics to end infighting or be expelled from the region.
The ultimatum was issued by Nusra Front leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani in an audio message in which he warned the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant that it would be driven both from Syria and "even from Iraq" if it rejected the results of arbitration.
The audio message was produced by Nusra Front's media arm al-Manara al-Baydha and was posted on militant websites Tuesday, two days after the killing of Abu Khaled al-Suri who acts as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri's representative in Syria. He was believed to be assassinated by two suicide bombers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Heavy clashes between the group and other and other rebel factions in opposition-held northern and eastern Syria have killed hundreds of people since the beginning of the year and undermined the fight to topple President Bashar Assad.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has angered other factions with its brutal tactics and campaign to Islamize areas under its control in the northeast.
"We are waiting for your official answer within five days of issuing this statement," al-Golani warned the group, adding that Syrians have been putting up with its aggression for a full year.
"By God, if you reject God's judgment again, and do not stop your arrogant overlording over the Muslim nation, then (we) will be forced to launch an assault against this aggressive, ignorant ideology and will expel it, even from Iraq," he said.
Al-Golani suggested the arbitration be conducted by three senior al-Qaida ideologists, including one serving a prison sentence and another standing trial on terrorism charges in Jordan.
He did not say how the two will handle the arbitration while they are in detention.
Al-Golani, who has sworn allegiance to al-Zawahri, said his group will abide by the clerics' fatwa. He said that until the procedures of the arbitration were completed, all "the military operations between us will stop."
Syria's conflict began with largely peaceful protests in March 2011 and gradually descended into civil war. Islamic extremists including foreign fighters have joined the war against Assad, playing an increasingly powerful role in the effort to topple him.
More than 140,000 people have died in the past three years, according to opposition activists.
In Syria, the chief of the United Nations relief agency supporting Palestinian refugees paid a rare visit to the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk.
Filippo Grandi, the Commissioner General of UNRWA, said he is "deeply disturbed and shaken" by the despair and destruction he'd seen in Yarmouk, an opposition enclave under the tight blockade of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
UNRWA shipments to the camp have been disrupted for months, sometimes cut off for weeks at a time, and as a result, Yarmouk residents have suffered from crippling shortages of food and medicine.
More than 100 people have died in in the area since mid-2013 as a result of starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to U.N. figures.
The extent of damage to the refugees' homes was shocking, Graindi said, adding that Palestinians he'd spoken were "traumatized by what they have lived through." They need immediate support, particularly food and medical treatment, he also said.
Yarmouk, located in southern Damascus, is the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Since the camp's creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated residential district just five miles (eight kilometers) from the center of Damascus. Several generations of Palestinian refugees have lived there.
About half of the camp's 150,000 residents have fled since fighting erupted.
Youssef reported from Cairo. Associated Press writer Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed.