Explosion in southern Syria kills local al-Qaida leader and his wife, activists say

A roadside bomb in Syria killed a local al-Qaida leader and his wife, activists said Tuesday, an attack that could ignite a new round of infighting among disparate rebel groups in the country.

The commander, identified as Ali al-Nuaimi of the Nusra Front, was killed near the town of Busra al-Sham in the southern province of Daraa, said Omar al-Hariri of the pro-rebel Sham News Network. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also described the killing as an "assassination."

The Nusra Front did not mention the attack on the social networks it typically uses.

There was no immediate word on who was behind the attack, but activists said both rival rebels and the government are possible culprits. The killing comes amid rising tensions in the south between the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaida's affiliate in Syria, and more moderate rebels.

On Friday, Nusra fighters seized a Western-backed Syrian military commander, Ahmad al-Naimeh.

A radical organization calling itself the "Islamic Courts of the Eastern Areas — Daraa" has confirmed it is holding Ahmad al-Naimeh and another military commander, saying it would soon air their "confessions."

Al-Naimeh was widely disliked by many rebels who accused him of abandoning his men in battle in the past and fleeing to Jordan, activists said.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the bombing and the kidnapping were connected. But if they are, they risk igniting rebel infighting in the south between more moderate Syrian opposition fighters and the hard-line Nusra Front.

Meanwhile, activists said that negotiations were still going on to evacuate rebels from opposition-held parts of the embattled central city of Homs, which Syrian government forces have been besieging for more than a year.

The activists said Tuesday that Iranian and Russian representatives have been attending the meetings at the al-Safir Hotel in Homs. They said they were there because they were negotiating a prisoner exchange as part of the Homs deal that would free at least three Iranians and a Russian who were seized by rebels in the northern province of Aleppo.

Russian and Iranian government officials were not immediately available for comment. Both Moscow and Tehran are staunch allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Activists provided The Associated Press with a video showing an Iranian woman they claimed was being held captive by the rebels. The video was uploaded on March 8 this year, but it wasn't clear when the Iranians and the Russian were seized.

The activists said negotiators were still working out minor but key details of the evacuation, including how to guarantee the rebels' safety as they leave.

Other opposition fighters needed to stay behind to show pro-government forces where mines had been planted in the old city, said another Homs-based activist, Beibars al-Tilawi.

As the talks drag on, the rebels wait, exhausted, said one activist who goes by the name Abu Reem al-Homsi.

"We reached a situation where we would either die from shelling, hunger or in suicide missions. We were eating grass. Even the trees don't have leaves, because we ate them all," al-Homsi said from the opposition-held Shayyah neighborhood.

"We reached the end."

Now in its fourth year, Syria's conflict has killed more than 150,000 people and forced some 2.5 million people to flee to the country. More than 1 million have landed in neighboring Lebanon, which is struggling under the burden of accommodating them all.

The U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says that 50,000 Palestinians from Syria have registered with the agency in Lebanon.

On Tuesday, a UNRWA official expressed concern about increased restrictions on Palestinian refugees after Lebanese authorities returned 41 Palestinians to Syria last weekend despite the dangers they face there.

"We are monitoring the situation on the border carefully and have been given assurances by the Lebanese authorities that these restrictions are temporary," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. "We hope that they will be lifted within the next few days."

Lebanon has been struggling to accommodate more than a million Syrians, who have sought shelter in the tiny Arab country during the 3-year-old conflict next door. UNRWA says that 50,000 Palestinians from Syria have registered with the agency in Lebanon, although many more have sought refuge in the country, according to government estimates.

Lebanese government officials did not immediately comment.

Palestinians living in Arab countries — including the half-million refugees in Syria — are descendants of the hundreds of thousands who fled or were driven from their homes in the war that followed Israel's creation in 1948.


Associated Press writers Barbara Surk and Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.