Syrian Islamist rebels fight against Al Qaeda-linked militants

Syrians walk along a severely damaged road in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor on Jan. 4, 2014.

Rival Islamist rebel groups fought in the Syrian city of Raqqa on Monday, residents said, as local fighters tried to drive out a foreign-led Al Qaeda affiliate which has also seized towns across the border in Iraq.

Activists opposed to President Bashar al-Assad said dozens of Syrian members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had changed sides to join other Sunni Islamist factions which have taken advantage of a local backlash against the ISIL and the foreign Al Qaeda jihadists prominent among its commanders.

The battles in Raqqa, a provincial capital on the Euphrates river in Syria's largely desert east, left bodies clad in the black favored by Al Qaeda fighters lying in the streets. They followed similar violence elsewhere in recent days that have seen the ISIL lose manpower and abandon some of its positions.

Backlash against ISIL

"The ISIL has split roughly into two groups — locals who are beginning to defect and foreign fighters who seem intent on going on fighting," Abedelrazzaq Shlas, an opposition activist in the province, told Reuters.

The fighting comes as groups in Iraq identifying themselves as ISIL have seized Sunni Muslim towns hundreds of miles away on the Euphrates in Iraq, challenging a Shia-led government in Baghdad which they see as allied, like Assad, to Shia Iran.

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In Syria, other Islamist groups have sought to take advantage of resentment among local people at efforts by the ISIL to impose radical interpretations of Islamic law and social practices in areas they control.

ISIL was initially welcomed by rebels, but tensions grew as the Al Qaeda affiliate was accused of imposing a reign of terror, including widespread kidnappings, torture, assassinations and public executions.

Syrian fighters from Islamist factions Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al Nusra, another Al Qaeda affiliate, had surrounded the main ISIL base in central Raqqa, activists said.

The rebel infighting has only served to strengthen Assad's hand ahead of peace talks later this month in Geneva.

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Prisoners released

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels attacking ISIL in Raqqa also "released 50 Syrian prisoners" held by the Sunni extremists.

ISIL is said to hold hundreds of prisoners in their now besieged Raqqa headquarters, and foreign journalists elsewhere in the province.

Turkish photographer Bunyamin Aygun, kidnapped in December while covering Syria, was freed Sunday, and 10 Syrian Kurds kidnapped at ISIL checkpoints escaped, said the Observatory.

Syrian National Coalition re-elects leader

Ahmad al-Jarba was re-elected as the Western-backed Syrian opposition's leader for a second six-month term on Sunday, coalition members said, defeating former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab.

While designated as the main body representing the opposition by the United States and other key powers, the newly elected political committee of the Syrian National Coalition faces a struggle for credibility in the run-up to international peace talks.

The Western-backed rebels grouped under the Coalition are still reeling from the suspension of non-lethal aid from the US and Britain last month, following the seizure of a weapons depot by the Islamic Front.

Iran can participate from the sidelines: US

Iran, largely considered Assad's sponsor, should not take formal part in the Geneva 2 peace conference, said US Secretary of State John Kerry, but it could "contribute form the sidelines."

The Coalition is being pushed by major powers to attend talks on Lake Geneva on January 22 aimed at ending the almost three-year conflict, which has killed more than 130,000 people and displaced millions. At the same time, its leaders fear losing what credibility they have on the ground by sitting down with Assad.

The Coalition will decide on Monday whether to take part in the peace talks, though a key group — the Syrian National Council — has already announced it will boycott the so-called Geneva 2 process.