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Published: Sunday January 5, 2014 MYT 9:01:16 PM
Updated: Sunday January 5, 2014 MYT 9:02:04 PM

Al Qaeda affiliate pull out of northern Syria strongholds

AMMAN (Reuters) - An al Qaeda affiliate rebel group pulled out from strategic areas of northern Syria near the Turkish border on Sunday after coming under heavy fire from other Islamist brigades, opposition activists said.

Fighting erupted in the last few days between the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), an al-Qaeda division led by foreign jihadists, and other home-grown Islamist groups, including the al Nusra Front, another al Qaeda affiliate. The clash was a culmination of tensions over territory and spheres of influence in the region near a long border with Turkey.

The area is key to supplying rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. Units of the Western backed Free Syrian Army also took part in fighting against the ISIL.

But the pullout on Sunday, which included the ISIL stronghold of al Dana in Idlib province and the important supply line town of Atma involved no fighting, suggesting a possible deal to avoid a larger confrontations that would sap the strength of the two sides and play into the hands of Assad, opposition sources and Middle East diplomats said.

Fighters from the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham militant group took over the ISIL positions in the two towns, activists in northern Syria said.

"The Islamic State is pulling out without a fight. Its fighters are taking their weapons and heavy guns. They appear to be heading in the direction of Aleppo," activist Firas Ahmad said.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; editing by Ralph Boulton)

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