BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian Kurdish fighters on Saturday captured the sole border post held by al-Qaida-linked groups on the border with Iraq, a major source of the militants’ support, activists and an Iraqi official said.
Rebels meanwhile denied government media reports that the head of one of Syria’s two main hard-line groups, the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front, had been killed in fighting on the other side of the country.
Friday’s one-line state media report, which could not be immediately confirmed, said Abu Mohammad al-Golani died in the coastal province of Latakia. But rebels said they had received no word of clashes in that province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish militiamen captured the Yaaroubiyeh post in northeast Syria after three days of clashes with several jihadist groups there, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
An Iraqi intelligence official confirmed that Kurdish rebels held the crossing point, adding that Baghdad brought reinforcements to the area to prevent any spillover of violence.
“They were heavy battles in which all types of weapons were used,” said the Iraqi official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. “Iraqi forces are ready to repel any attack.”
Kurdish groups control a large swath of northern Syria. Clashes between their fighters and jihadists have killed hundreds of people in the past months.
The border crossing point was under government control until March when hard-line rebels captured it. Syrian rebels, particularly the hard-line groups, are believed to draw support from insurgents in Iraq. Sunni Arabs dominate both the Syrian rebel movement and the Iraqi insurgency.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating the nation’s cities and towns.
If government reports on the death of al-Golani are correct, then the capture of the Yaarobiyeh post would be the second set-back for al-Nusra and its allies in recent days.
But Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said Syrian rebels did not report any recent clash in Latakia province. He says his group is unsure if al-Golani even exists.
“This is part of the regime’s lies. Our information from the ground says that this is not true and not accurate,” al-Mikdad said by telephone.
The Nusra Front has emerged as one of the most effective among rebel groups fighting Assad, and it has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings against government targets. The U.S. State Department put the group on its list of terrorist organizations for its connections to al-Qaida.
In Daraa province in the south of the country, rebels captured the town of Tafas after weeks of fighting that left scores of people dead, the Observatory said. The government media did not report on the battle.
Syria also launched a vaccination campaign around the country days after the World Health Organization said it has received reports of a cluster of acute flaccid paralysis cases in the Syria, state-run daily Al-Thawra said. Paralysis is a symptom of polio.
The newspaper quoted Health Minister Saad al-Nayef as saying that the country has launched the campaign at these particular circumstances “that witness spread of diseases and viruses.”
The minister said the campaign includes vaccination against measles and polio at all health centers and makeshift residential centers, which will last until Nov. 21.
Polio was last reported in Syria in 1999.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.