Scuffles broke out at an anti-regime rally in rebel-held Syria, as jihadi militants tried to silence moderate demonstrators who had taken to the streets for the second week in a row exploiting a tenuous ceasefire to reaffirm their demand that Bashar al-Assad stands down. Protesters waving Free Syrian Army (FSA) flags and chanting anti-Assad slogans were confronted by fighters with al-Qaeda's affiliate the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front in the rebel stronghold of Marat al-Numan, a western city between Hama and Aleppo.
Images circulated on social media showed bearded militants attempting to snatch a microphone from a local resistance leader Abu Elias al-Mairi.
Scuffles between the two sides erupted as Islamist militants stepped in to seize the green, white and black standards of the secular insurgents in an attempt to break up the rally.
Nusra officials had reportedly demanded only black Islamist banners be waved at the demonstration at an earlier summit between different factions. The request was largely disregarded. The incident underscored the simmering animosity between increasingly sidelined secular rebels that led the revolution against the regime in 2011 and radical forces that have since taken sway in the country.
Marat al-Numan was not the only place to witness a revival of the protest movement, with people demonstrating in various other towns and cities of rebel-held areas of Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Idlib, Daraa and Homs. Footage posted on the opposition blog Yalla Souriya showed a mixed crowd crowding an Aleppo street while calling for Assad to be executed.
The protests were a repeat of those that erupted on 4 March when, for the first time in years, hundreds marched on the streets after the traditional Friday Muslim prayers. Syrians have taken advantage of the lull created by a ceasefire that came into force on 27 February and which has been largely holding despite reports of both sides trying to reclaim the revolution as their own.
Demonstrators directed their anger at Assad and foreign powers such as Russia and Iran whose help has been crucial in bringing the regime back from the brink of collapse."With this truce, we have the opportunity to express why we came out to the streets in the first place, which is the downfall of the regime," Abu Nadim, an activist in Aleppo told AFP last week.
More than 310,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2011, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and millions have been displaced. Meanwhile a boost for hopes of bringing the war to an end via negotiations was given by the High Negotiations Committee the main opposition umbrella group that agreed to attend the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.