An airstrike near the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Friday killed top rebel commander Zahran Allouch, who led one of the most powerful groups fighting against President Bashar Assad's government, opposition activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an airstrike hit an Army of Islam meeting near the Damascus suburb of Otaya, killing several rebel commanders including Allouch.
The Observatory said warplanes hit a meeting during which Army of Islam commanders were preparing to launch an offensive against government forces and those of Lebanon's Hezbollah near Damascus.
It was unclear in the immediate aftermath whether the airstrike was launched by Syrian or Russian warplanes, the observatory said. But the Syrian military later claimed responsibility in a statement published by the state-run SANA news agency.
The Lebanon-based AL-Mayadeen TV said Allouch was killed during a meeting to reconcile two feuding rebel factions near Damascus. The station said 13 airstrikes hit eastern Damascus on Friday.
Mazen al-Shami, an opposition activist based near Damascus, said Russian warplanes fired 10 missiles at the site where Allouch and top commanders in his group were meeting in Otaya. He said several officials and commanders were killed or wounded.
Saudi-backed Allouch was one of the most powerful rebel commanders and his group controls large parts of the Damascus suburbs. The Army of Islam faction is the most powerful group fighting government forces as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) near Damascus.
A former prisoner who was released in a general amnesty after the uprising against Assad began in March 2011, Allouch joined the armed opposition and formed the Army of Islam - which became one of the most organized rebel factions in Syria.
His group was behind the shelling of Damascus in recent months with mortar shells, attacks that killed and wounded scores of civilians.
The group took part earlier this month in an opposition meeting held in Saudi Arabia to agree on an opposition delegation that would negotiate with government representatives in planned peace talks. The government has always said it will not negotiate with "terrorists" and considers the Army of Islam to be terrorists.
His death comes a month before peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition are scheduled to begin in Geneva.
The Associated Press
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