Crowd Attacks Syrian Rebel Figure Over Reconciliation Push

BEIRUT (AP) — Angry protesters in Syria’s rebel-held enclave rallied Friday against reconciliation attempts between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and scuffled with a local Syrian opposition figure involved in those attempts.

The crowd of several dozen demonstrators in the rebel-held town of Azaz first chanted slogans against the political efforts, then shouted abuse at Salem Meslet, head of the Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition, who showed up at the gathering.

The protesters shouted “thug” and “traitor” at Meslet, who took part in past Syrian peace talks between the opposition and the government that were held over the years in Geneva. Those talks failed to lead to any substantial peace agreement.

Several men then chased Meslet down a street and slapped him. He was not seriously hurt and managed to flee from the scene as the men banged on his car.

Since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war nearly 12 years ago, Ankara has supported anti-Assad forces and the Syrian opposition.

In a videotaped statement, Meslet later said he went to the rally after attending Friday’s prayers at a local mosque. He said he tried to explain to the young men protesting that “we reject Assad and his crimes.”

Russia has long been pressing for a reconciliation between Turkey and the Syrian government — Moscow’s close ally — which have been on opposite sides in the conflict.

The efforts toward a Turkish-Syrian reconciliation also come as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who faces presidential and parliamentary elections in June — is under intense pressure at home to send Syrian refugees back. Anti-refugee sentiment is rising in Turkey amid an economic crisis.

Syria’s civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and destroyed large parts of the country. It has also displaced half of Syria’s pre-war population of 23 million.

Separately, in neighboring Lebanon, the Lebanese army said Friday that troops freed two Syrian children kidnapped by criminals along the Lebanon-Syria border last October. The case had been followed closely in Lebanon where the kidnappers had demanded $350,000 in ransom and released videos showing the children being tortured.

Lebanon is home to nearly 1 million Syrian refugees who fled the war in the neighboring country.