A senior military commander and founding member of the Syrian rebel group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, has been killed by a US air strike that hit a meeting of the group’s leaders, rebels said.
Abu Hajer al-Homsi, whose real name was Abu Omar Saraqeb, was killed in a raid on a rural part of Aleppo province on Thursday, which was most likely carried out by a US fighter jet, a rebel source told the Reuters news agency.
Another source told Reuters that the rebels were at a hideout in the village of Kafr Naha when the strike hit them.
The AFP news agency also reported Saraqeb’s death, citing rebels.
Few other details emerged, but a photo of another top leader known as Abu Muslim al-Shami was circulated on social media showing him alive to refute reports he had also been killed.
The leader of the group, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, was not believed to be at the meeting.
The nationality of the planes that carried out Thursday’s strike was not immediately known, but a rebel source told Reuters initial information suggested it was most likely an American fighter jet that struck the hideout.
It would be the first time the US-led coalition had targeted the group since its rebrand.
Since a US-led coalition began launching raids on groups in Syria and Iraq in September 2014, bombing raids have frequently targeted Nusra Front figures in Syria, also resulting in the deaths of scores of civilians. But Thursday’s attack marked the first time a key figure had been targeted since the group changed its name.
The Nusra Front announced in July that it was ending a relationship with al-Qaeda and changing its name to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in an attempt to appeal to those Syrians who had misgivings about its links with al-Qaeda, and the presence of foreign fighters in its ranks.
But American commanders said their operations would continue, with State Department spokesperson John Kirby saying: “They are still considered a foreign terrorist organisation. We judge a group by what they do, not by what they call themselves.”
Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is currently leading the Jaysh al-Fatah (Army of Conquest) coalition of Islamist rebels battling Syrian government forces and Shia militias in Aleppo city, which in split between regime and opposition control.
They succeeded in breaking a siege of eastern districts earlier this year but have been pushed back in fierce battles over recent days, seeing forces loyal to Assad regime retake the key Ramouseh district on Thursday.