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May 28, 3:32 PM EDT

Syria's al-Qaida chief says no plans to attack the West


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Al-Qaida's branch in Syria has no plans to attack the West but warns of retaliation if U.S.-led airstrikes continue to target its fighters, the leader of the group said in an interview with an Arab TV station.

The Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani, who heads the Nusra Front, said the aim of his group is to march to the Syrian capital Damascus and bring down President Bashar Assad's government. Al-Golani denied that the so-called Khorasan group even exists.

Since September, when the U.S.-led coalition launched an air campaign against the Islamic State group in Syria, U.S. airstrikes have struck targets associated with the so-called Khorasan group - which Washington says is a special cell within the Nusra Front that is plotting attacks against Western interests.

Al-Golani said in an interview with the Al-Jazeera TV network aired Wednesday night that "there is nothing called Khorasan group. We heard this from the Americans only."

He added that if the coalition's airstrikes continue, "then the alternatives are open and it is the right of any human being to defend himself."

Al-Golani said the directions his group has received from al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri are "not to use Syria for attacks against the West and Europe."

"The directions that we have received from Dr. Ayman, may God protect him, are that the Nusra Front's aim is to bring down the regime and its allies, I mean Hezbollah," al-Golani, whose face was not shown during the interview, said.

He added that the "directions we have received until now are not to target the West and America." He said al-Qaida might be doing so, but not the Nusra Front.

The Nusra Front, one of Syria's strongest insurgent groups, is leading the so-called Fatah Army that consists of seven Syria-based factions. The Fatah Army has rolled back Assad's forces over the past two months, capturing wide areas of the northwestern province of Idlib, including the provincial capital that carries the same name.

On Thursday, the Fatah Army coalition - which is supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia - captured the town of Ariha in northern Syria, one of the last remaining government holdouts in Idlib province. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Idlib-based activists said fighters seized the entire town after government forces withdrew.

In the span of a month, Syrian insurgents have routed government forces across the province, flushing them out of strongholds in a string of embarrassing defeats for Assad. The first to go was the city of Idlib, which fell to opposition fighters at the end of March, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughur and the Qarmid military base in April.

Government forces still control two Shiite-dominated villages and an air base in the province.

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