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Syria: Islamists advance towards Assad bastion of Latakia - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 file photo, Syrian fighters of “The Beloved of Allah,” brigade hold their weapons before fighting with government forces on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File.)

In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012 file photo, Syrian fighters of “The Beloved of Allah,” brigade hold their weapons before fighting with government forces on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra, File.)

Aleppo and Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Syrian Islamist opposition groups seized 11 Alawite-dominated villages along the Syrian coast on Monday, prompting civilians to flee to the city of Latakia.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) announced that “at least 20 rebels and 32 fighters loyal to Assad have been killed” in clashes in the suburbs of Latakia on Monday.

Fighting erupted in the suburbs of Latakia on Sunday as largely Sunni rebel groups, including Al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Harakat Ahrar Al-Sham Al-Islami (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), attacked several pro-Assad villages with mortars and Grad missiles before storming them.

The number of the villages currently under the control of the rebels amounts to 11, including Marsadan, Kafriya, Burj Barouda, and others.

It has been also reported that the rebels managed to kidnap a prominent Alawite cleric, Badr Eddine Ghazal, alleged to be one of Bashar Al Assad’s staunchest supporters among the ranks of Syria’s Alawite clerics.

Ammar Hassan, a member of the rebels coordination staff in Latakia, told Asharq Al-Awsat that fighters linked with the Islamist ISIS kidnapped Ghazal and that “they did not intend to kidnap the cleric whom they found by coincidence while combing one of the villages.”

“[The cleric] will probably be swapped with some of the female prisoners held by Hilal Assad in Latakia’s Sports City,” he added.

The Ghazal family is thought to be among the most influential Alawite families supporting Assad, and according to activists the cleric “played a huge role after the revolution erupted by supporting the regime and promoting it as the primary protector of the Alawite sect.”

Although it is expected that the rebels’ advances in the Alawite-majority areas will provoke sectarian conflict, given that the majority of the rebels there belong to the radical Islamist Al-Nusra Front and the ISIS, the Syrian National Coalition’s (SNC) ambassador to Paris, Monzer Makhous, insisted that “the FSA’s entry into the coastal region is something required to prevent the regime from establishing a sectarian canton and [thus] restore balance with the regime forces in [Latakia].”

Near Aleppo, Syrian Islamist opposition groups the Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar Al-Sham continued to attack Aleppo’s Central prison in a bid to free around 1,000 Al-Qaeda members who are reportedly being held there. The offensive started late on Thursday afternoon when a suicide bomber detonated a large amount of TNT on the outskirts of the prison, and fighting continued throughout the weekend.

The attack mirrors an offensive by the Pakistani Taliban three days ago on the Central Prison in the Peshwari city of Dera Ismail Khan, in which 250 prisoners were set free. Last week the Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham freed 140 Al-Qaeda operatives in simultaneous attacks on the Abu Ghraib and Taji Prisons in Iraq, prompting Interpol to issue a global alert.

This is the second time that the prison has been targeted by the Syrian opposition. In May the rebels captured one building on the compound after detonating two car bombs at the prison’s entrance, but were forced to retreat a day later when the regime troops who were defending it began shooting prisoners and throwing them out of the windows.

“This is a difficult operation,” said a rebel who is taking part in the offensive. “We can’t shell the prison because we will kill the prisoners inside. So we have to fight around the prison instead.” He said that around twenty regime soldiers had been killed in the fighting on Sunday, and five from the rebel brigades.

Aleppo Central Prison is one of sixteen prisons in Syria, and one of the two main prisons where political prisoners are held. There are approximately 5,000 prisoners currently held there, 2,000 of which are political prisoners. However, it is likely that some have been moved to other prisons in recent months because of the rebels’ advances in Aleppo Province. The opposition now controls most of the area from the Turkish border to Aleppo City.

Hannah Lucinda Smith contributed reporting.