Blast in northern Syria kills most leaders of largest Islamist rebel group

An explosion of uncertain origin Tuesday killed nearly all the leaders of one of the largest rebel groups fighting to topple the government of President Bashar Assad.

At least two dozen senior leaders of Ahrar al Sham, a conservative Islamist group, died in the blast, which came 10 days after the group had distanced itself from al Qaida’s official Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front. The death toll, by some accounts, was as high as 75.

Activists and witnesses gave varying versions of what took place at a former government agricultural research center outside the town of Ram Hamdan near the Turkish border that had become a major Ahrar al Sham base. One account attributed the blast to a car bomb.

But a senior member of Ahrar al Sham who tweets under the pseudonym Mujahid al Sham posted on Twitter that the explosion had originated in a workshop for manufacturing bombs that was adjacent to the room where the Ahrar al Sham leaders were meeting. He said the explosion detonated huge amounts of TNT.

Among the dead was the group’s top leader, Hassan Abboud, and its military leader, Abdulnaser al Yassin, Sham tweeted. Only one survivor was reported, Allam Abboud, Hassan Abboud’s younger brother. He was reportedly hospitalized in critical condition.

Sham said in his Twitter account that the devastated meeting room had no windows and had quickly filled with acrid black smoke from the blast. He said it took 10 minutes for rescuers to reach the blast site and that by that time, most of the leaders and their bodyguards had suffocated.

Zaki al Idilbi, a reporter for the opposition Orient TV, told McClatchy that doctors who’d examined the dead told him that most had died from smoke inhalation and that injuries from the explosion itself were few.

Idilbi said that most of the bodies had already been buried hours after the explosion, though a few were still waiting to be claimed by relatives.

Idilbi said the meeting of so many key leaders apparently had been called to consider whether Ahrar al Sham should join a new rebel coalition, the Council for Leading the Revolution, that would unite moderate rebels, including those receiving U.S. aid. The decision to join the coalition, whose formation was announced hours after the explosion, would have been a major change for the group, whose ties to the Nusra Front were so close that some U.S. intelligence officials have advocated that Ahrar al Sham be classified as an international terrorist organization.

Most of the dead were members of Ahrar al Sham’s moderate wing, Idilbi said.

The explosion was likely to prove fatal to the organization, which was once thought to have had as many as 35,000 fighters. Those fighters now are likely to drift to one of the other groups fighting in Syria -- the Free Syrian Army, Nusra or the Islamic State, the extremist group that has declared an Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

McClatchy contacted one of the group’s leaders who had not been killed in the attack and asked whether there was an official statement on what took place.

“No one is left to issue an official statement,” he said, asking that he not be identified by name for security reasons. “We are waiting for our brothers who are still alive to regroup so we can hold a meeting.”