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Mar 6, 8:52 AM EST

Al-Qaida's Syria branch confirms death of field commander


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Al-Qaida's Syria branch confirms death of field commander

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BEIRUT (AP) -- Al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate confirmed on Friday that its top field commander was killed in an airstrike that targeted a meeting of the group's senior leadership.

Abu Anas al-Shami, the spokesman for the Nusra Front, was quoted on a prominent militant website as saying that Thursday's airstrike in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib killed Abu Hommam al-Shami, described as the group's "military commander."

Abu Hommam's death was first reported a day earlier by Syria's SANA state news agency and by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said that other senior Nusra Front leaders were also killed in the attack.

The two al-Shamis - Abu Hommam and Abu Anas - are not related. Their shared name in Arabic means "the Syrian."

The fate of the Nusra group's overall leader, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, was not clear, the Observatory said, although there were reports that he had been in the area of the attack. The jihadi website quotes the Nusra Front spokesman as saying three others were killed in Thursday's airstrike, including two of Abu Hommam's bodyguards. It did not provide further information on the identity of the third fatality.

It also remained unclear who conducted the airstrike. SANA claimed it was the Syrian military, while activists and Nusra said it was the U.S.-led coalition. A press release from U.S. Central Command listed a total of four coalition airstrikes conducted Thursday in Syria, but mentioned none in Idlib province.

The U.S. considers the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, and both the coalition and the Syrian government routinely target Nusra positions.

The attack deals a blow to the Nusra Front at a time when it has been confronting other Syrian militant groups and consolidating control over parts of northern Syria - particularly in Idlib. Nusra Front fighters recently overran encampments belonging to the U.S.-backed Hazm Movement, a rebel group, and seized what it claimed were American weapons and supplies. In the aftermath of that defeat, the Hazm Movement dissolved itself.

The Nusra Front is also a bitter rival of the Islamic State group, which controls about a third of Iraq and Syria. However, the two militant groups also occasionally cooperate on limited operations - including a joint cross-border raid last year that took more than a dozen Lebanese soldiers and policemen hostage.

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Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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