Prominent Leader of Syria's Nusra Front Believed Killed in U.S. Strike

U.S. airstrike targeted a meeting of senior Al-Qaida operatives, including Abu Firas, 'the Syrian.'

A boy runs near damaged buildings while competing in 'Freedom Marathon' marking the fifth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, in the town of Marat Numan in Idlib province, Syria, March 23, 2016.

REUTERS - A prominent leader in Syrian Al-Qaida offshoot Nusra Front was killed on Sunday in a U.S. strike in the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib.

The U.S. military was still assessing whether al-Suri died in the strike, said a spokesman for the Pentagon. He declined to say whether the strike was carried out by a manned or unmanned aircraft. 

"We deemed that he (al-Suri) was present at that meeting and we're trying to determine if he has been removed from the battlefield," he said. 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks violence in the country, confirmed reports on websites by militant sympathizers that Abu Firas, "the Syrian," was killed along with a number of his companions.

"The Sheikh was with his son and several companions," said one of the rebel sources familiar with details of the incident.

Islamist rebel sources said Abu Firas was a founding member of the militant group who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was a senior member of its policy-making Shura Council.

He worked with Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in galvanizing support among Pakistani supporters of the fundamentalist Taliban movement in Afghanistan several decades ago, the sources said.

They added that Abu Firas, who was a former Syrian army officer discharged in the late 1970s because of his Islamist leanings, played a significant role in training Muslim Sunni jihadists who came from many parts of the Arab world to Afghanistan to fight the Russian occupation of the country.

Abu Firas had many followers within the hardline group and gave commentaries released by Nusra Front on issues ranging from governance to religious jurisprudence, the rebel sources said.

Originally from Madaya, near Damascus, Abu Firas was a fervent opponent of Islamic State's style and ideologically at odds with the militant group that occupies parts of Syria and Iraq.

"May God accept him as a martyr, he was a commanding figure. This was engineered by the Crusader axis," said one of the sources.

A fragile "cessation of hostilities" has held in Syria for over a month as the various parties try to negotiate an end to Syria's five-year-old civil war.

But the truce excludes Islamic State and Nusra Front, and air and land attacks by Syrian and allied forces continue in parts of Syria where the government says the groups are present.