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Rebel-held towns in Syria protest U.S. bombing of al Qaida affiliate

In this photo provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian government protesters carry flags of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, left, and Islamic State group, right, during a demonstration against the U.S.-led coalition airtstrikes, at Maarat Masrin town, in Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN)
In this photo provided by an anti-Bashar Assad activist group Edlib News Network (ENN), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian government protesters carry flags of the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, left, and Islamic State group, right, during a demonstration against the U.S.-led coalition airtstrikes, at Maarat Masrin town, in Idlib province, northern Syria, Friday Sept. 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN) AP

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of rebel-held towns in northern Syria Friday to protest U.S.-led airstrikes against the Islamic State and supporting creation of an Islamic caliphate.

Organizers of the protests had urged demonstrations to show that “civilians don’t need international killers,” and crowds responded in the cities of Aleppo, Idlib and Hama.

The protesters singled out the reported deaths of a dozen or so civilians in the town of Kafr Daryan in northern Idlib province, where a U.S. cruise missile allegedly struck a building that housed displaced people near a base belonging to al Qaida’s Nusra Front.

They also complained that the airstrikes ignored targets associated with the government of President Bashar Assad and struck only those associated with the Islamic State or Nusra.

“Our first enemy is America and its allies” and “The people want an Islamic caliphate,” protesters in Idlib chanted.

Eight of the locations hit by the U.S.-led coalition on Tuesday were installations controlled by Nusra, which the United States has labeled a terrorist organization but that opponents of the Assad government see as a key component of the anti-Assad movement. U.S. officials have said those strikes were targeting an al Qaida unit they identified as the Khorasan group that was plotting attacks on Western targets.

As the protesters marched, the Syrian government continued its own airstrikes Friday, attacking rebel-held towns of Bara and Ma’ardebse in Idlib and Kafr Zeita, Atshan, Hawija and Latamena in Hama province.

Regime jets and helicopters also bombed Saraqeb, a town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway, killing two civilians Friday morning, the Sakhur district of Aleppo, killing three persons, and the Inzarat district of Aleppo, anti-regime media activists said.

Official Syrian news outlets claimed Friday that government forces had seized villages from the hands of the Islamic State in Tal Hamis, north of Hasaka province in eastern Syria, an apparent attempt to suggest that the government was benefiting from the airstrikes.

But anti-government media activists said that the area had long been contested between the government and the Islamic State and was in government hands most of the time. They added that the U.S.-led airstrikes had not targeted the area.

“Even if it is true that the regime has taken two or three villages in Tal Hamis, this has nothing to do with coalition bombing because the coalition hasn’t bombed that area at all,” said activist Siraj al Haskawi from Hasaka, who was reached via Skype.

The protests in rebel-held territories illustrated the confusion among Syrians over the aims of the U.S.-led coalition and the support that al Qaida’s Nusra Front enjoys among rebel factions.

In Afamia, a town in western Hama province, demonstrators carried Nusra’s black flags, chanted anti-Assad slogans, called for the downfall of the Syrian Opposition Coalition – the U.S.-backed civilian organization that the United States recognizes as the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people – and condemned what they called “the coalition strikes against the mujahedeen,” or holy warriors.

Diya’a al Dib, a media activist who in the past has supplied international news outlets with film of demonstrators calling for the fall of the Assad regime, said on his Facebook page Friday that Al Jazeera, an international news channel funded by the Qatari government, and other outlets refused to use his film, apparently because it showed the extremist mood among demonstrators and the raising of the flag of the Nusra Front.

In Afamia, the Nusra-appointed imam at the local mosque called for the demonstration during his sermon, in which he said “Christians and their spies have been working to divide Muslims since the 7th century,” according to the Facebook posting.

Activists who until now have had little to do with Islamist extremists joined the protest.

“We were expecting America to help arm the opposition and bomb Assad; instead, it bombed only the Islamic State,” Hussien Kanag, an activist from Afamia, told McClatchy.

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