Civilians in the town of Maarat al-Numan in Syria took to the streets in an extraordinary show of defiance after jihadists from the al-Nusra Front had attacked US-backed rebels in the area. The protesters were demanding the release of captured members of the moderate opposition and for the al-Qaeda affiliated fighters to leave the Idlib province town.
Online footage from the scene showed scores of people marching through the streets waving flags of the 13th Division, a Western-backed rebel group fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner. Protesters reportedly stormed a Nusra compound in town, freeing several detainees. "Free demonstration demanding gate return of the 13th Division and denouncing Nusra's abuses," the moderate militia wrote on Twitter, commenting images from the protest.
Tensions between secular rebels and the Islamist group erupted on March 11, as jihadi militants tried to break up an anti-Assad rally supported by moderate forces. Two days later Nusra extremists moved to seize bases and weapons from the 13th Division.
At least 11 militants (seven from the 13th Division and 4 from Nusra) were killed in the clashes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The 13th Division commander Ahmed al-Seoud denied the group's US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles had also fallen into the hands of the jihadi faction.
"Nusra only took light weapons and ammunition. All our caches are fine, apart from one which they captured," he told Reuters. "The TOWs are safe and the mortars are safe." Nusra, like the Islamic State (Isis), is not covered by a fragile truce deal agreed by the Assad regime and most rebel factions over its terrorist ties.
Maarat al-Numan is strategically located on the road connecting Homs to Aleppo and was home to a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medical structure allegedly bombed and destroyed by Russian warplanes in February.