The head and several leaders of one of Syria’s most powerful rebel groups, Jaysh al-Islam, have been killed in an air strike east of Damascus.Founder Zahroun Alloush, 44, was among those killed when rockets hit a meeting place, rebels and the Syrian army said.The Saudi-backed Islamist group is one of the biggest factions and is dominant in the Eastern Ghouta countryside.It recently joined an opposition summit in Riyadh which produced a framework for peace talks with the government.Ten rockets struck as Jaysh al-Islam commanders met, Saudi-funded al-Arabiya TV reported. The group’s deputy leader was also killed, al-Arabiya said.Jaysh al-Islam later named Issam al-Buwaydani – who is also known as Abu Humam – as its new leader. He is from Douma – a town to the east of Damascus.In a statement carried by state television, Syria’s army command said it had conducted the “special operation” that killed Alloush, reported AFP news agency.However, some activists said it was a Russian air strike, while other sources suggested the Syrian air force had conducted the strike using Russian missiles.
Analysts called it a severe blow for rebel forces and a threat to the nascent efforts to find a political resolution. Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has been waging an air campaign in Syria since the end of September.Moscow insists it has been targeting so-called Islamic State, but rebels and Western officials say the Russian strikes have mainly been hitting other groups.Jaysh al-Islam, whose fighters number tens of thousands, took part in the conference in the Saudi capital which agreed a common approach among disparate rebel groups for UN-backed peace talks planned for January.Syria and Russia dismissed the meeting, saying the groups did not properly represent the opposition and that those that did attend were unacceptable.