Syrian army kills 17 militants in country's south


However, the Lebanese al-Manar TV, the mouthpiece of the Shiite Hezbollah group, said that the recent deal was frozen after the Syrian army killed the leader of the Islam Army rebel group, Zahran Alloush, in an airstrike east of Damascus on Friday.

A U.N.-sponsored deal to evacuate more than 2,000 fighters, a lot of them with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), from rebel-held parts of south Damascus has been delayed after a rebel commander was killed, a monitor said Saturday.

It even recently agreed to eventual peace talks with the regime of Bashar al Assad.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the evacuation from Damascus was expected to take place early on Saturday (local time). In Homs countryside, army units thwarted an infiltration attempt by a terrorist group from Rahoum towards Maksar al-Hisan, from Unq al-Hawa towards Jub al-Jarah, from Haiyal Mountain towards a military post and on Salmiyeh- Ain al-Nisr road in the eastern countryside of the province, according to the military spokesman.

Zahran Alloush, 44, was the commander of the Jaish al-Islam (Army of Islam), the predominant Opposition faction in the Eastern Ghouta rebel bastion east of Damascus. The Syrian military claimed responsibility in a statement published by the state-run SANA news agency.

Damascus has used the term for all its opponents - including the US-backed rebels - since the conflict erupted in 2011. If his death weakens Jaysh Al Islam, government forces could advance in Eastern Ghouta and remove an important opposition bargaining chip in the peace talks.

It could also thwart potential peace talks between the regime and the opposition, which the United Nations announced could begin in less than one month.

"Forces of Jaish al-Islam have infiltrated into security headquarters of pro-Assad troops in the Joubar neighborhood in Damascus and detonated a large amount of explosives", the leadership of Jaish al-Islam said.

In a statement carried by state television, Syria's army command said it had conducted the "special operation" that killed Alloush as part of its "national mission".

Several opposition groups also mourned Allouch's death and accused the government and its allies of trying to eliminate rival groups ahead of the talks.

He expressed hopes the "broadest possible spectrum" of opposition representatives would be involved, adding: "Continuing developments on the ground should not be allowed to derail it".

Jaysh al Islam, with thousands of trained fighters, is the biggest and seen as the most organized rebel group. Earlier this year Islamic State (IS) militants took over parts of the camp. Alawites are a Shia offshoot to which Assad's family also belongs. The AP could not immediately confirm the claim. "The more intense the war against it, the purer it becomes and the tougher it gets", said the audio recording, described as being by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

However, Aron Lund, a Syria expert, said the death of Allouch, who led the Army of Islam since it was founded around four years ago, could amount to "a decapitation strike" for the group.