BEIRUT -- Al-Qaida-linked gunmen have killed a rebel commander in Syria aligned with the Western-backed militias fighting against Bashar Assad's regime. The late-Thursday shooting is the highest-profile casualty of growing tensions between moderate and jihadi fighters among rebel forces.
Observers worried Friday that the commander's death will increase distrust and suspicion between forces already at odds over territory and leadership as the nearly three-year civil war continues in Syria.
Free Syrian Army spokesman Loay AlMikdad said Friday that members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant -- a group reportedly made up of al-Qaida's branches in Iraq and Syria -- were behind the killing of Kamal Hamami. Mr. Hamami, known as Abu Basir, served in the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, a group headed by a secular-minded moderate that has the support of Western powers.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said gunmen shot Mr. Hamami dead after militants tried to remove a checkpoint he set up in the Jabal al-Turkoman mountain in the coastal province of Latakia. The observatory said two of his men were seriously wounded in the shooting.
Mr. AlMikdad told Al-Arabiya TV that Mr. Hamami "was assassinated at the hands of the forces of evil and crime at one of the checkpoints." He added that the group that killed Mr. Hamami "should hand over those who carried out this act to stand trial."
Activists monitoring the war previously reported occasional clashes between rebel groups and Islamic militants active in rebel-held areas -- especially in the north, where the opposition has control of a large part of the region. There also has been infighting between Kurdish and Arab groups over control of territory captured from the Assad government along the border with Turkey in the past year. That fighting subsided after a cease-fire agreement early this year.
Mr. Hamami's killing marks the first time a commander from the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army has been killed by rebel jihadists. His death underlines a deepening power struggle between moderate and extremist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war.
"It's hard to tell where things are going to. It could really go either way," said Charles Lister, an analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center. "I personally don't think it's in either of the sides' long-term interest to spark an escalation."
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the observatory, said most of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant members are foreigners. He said they come from Arab countries as well as former Soviet republics such as Chechnya.
Last week, Mr. Abdul-Rahman said members of the group killed a local rebel commander, Fadi al-Qish, in the village of Dana in the central province of Hama. "They spend money to spread their influence among people," he said.
Last month, in the northern city of Aleppo, the same group killed a 15-year-old youth, accusing him of being an "infidel" for mentioning Islam's Prophet Muhammad in vain. Gunmen shot the boy dead in front of a stand where he sold coffee, sparking international concern about religious extremism creeping into the civil war.
More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011 with largely peaceful protests against Mr. Assad's rule that escalated into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown. Over the past year, the conflict became increasingly sectarian, with mostly Sunni rebels assisted by foreign fighters fighting government forces bolstered by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah.