BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian state-run TV reported Friday that the leader of a powerful al-Qaida-linked rebel group has been killed — a claim that if confirmed would be a huge blow to fighters trying to topple President Bashar Assad. At least one rebel commander denied the report.
Questions remained over whether Abu Mohammad al-Golani, head of Jabhat al-Nusra, or the Nusra Front, had indeed died. State TV said he was killed in the coastal province of Latakia, but did not say when or give details. Later Friday, it removed the report from its website without explanation.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the fighting in Syria, said senior Nusra Front leaders contacted by activists in Latakia and the eastern Deir el-Zour province denied al-Golani had been killed.
Other Nusra Front sources said they could not confirm or deny the report "because contact with al-Golani was cut," the Observatory said in a statement. A rebel commander in a Damascus suburb contacted by the Associated Press said he believed al-Golani was alive and well based on his contacts with other fighters including those from Nusra Front. He declined to elaborate or be identified for security concerns.
The report comes as the fragmented rebels have suffered significant losses on the battlefield.
Syrian troops killed at least 40 opposition fighters, including Nusra Front members, earlier Friday in an ambush near Damascus, the government said.
Assad's forces backed by Lebanese Hezbollah gunmen also seized control of a rebel ammunition supply route on a highway linking the capital to its eastern suburbs — part of a blistering government offensive to bolster its position amid an international push for peace talks.
The Nusra Front has emerged as one of the most effective among rebel groups fighting Assad, and it has claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings against government targets. The U.S. State Department put the group on its list of terrorist organizations for its connections to al-Qaida.
Al-Golani, who fought previously in Iraq, is a shadowy figure who is believed to have spent time recently in suburbs south of Damascus. Rebels have also gained footholds in mountainous regions of Latakia, which is largely loyal to Assad, and he may have gone there to direct fighting.
Vaccination of Syrian children planned
U.N. officials said Friday that they were mobilizing to vaccinate 2.5 million young children in Syria and more than 8 million others in the region to combat what they fear could be an explosive outbreak of polio, the incurable viral disease that cripples and kills, which has reappeared in the war-ravaged country for the first time in more than a dozen years.
The officials said the discovery a few weeks ago of a cluster of paralyzed young children in Deir al-Zour, a heavily contested city in eastern Syria, had prompted their alarm, and that tests conducted by both the government and rebel sides strongly suggested the children had been afflicted with polio.
Bruce Aylward, assistant director general for polio and emergencies at the World Health Organization, said officials were taking no chances and assuming the 20 paralyzed children in Deir al-Zour were polio victims.
The possibility of a polio epidemic in Syria, where the once-vaunted public health system has collapsed after 31 months of political upheaval and war, came as the United Nations is increasingly struggling with the problem of how to deliver basic emergency aid to millions of civilians there.
Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.