BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian Kurdish fighters captured Saturday the sole border post held by al-Qaida-linked groups on their border with Iraq, a major source of the militants' support, activists and an Iraqi official said.
Rebels meanwhile denied government media reports that the head of one of Syria's two main hard-line groups, the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front, had been killed in fighting on the other side of the country.
Friday's one-line state media report, which could not be immediately confirmed, said Abu Mohammad al-Golani died in the coastal province of Latakia. But rebels said they had received no word of clashes in that province.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Kurdish militiamen had captured the Yaaroubiyeh post in northeast Syria on Saturday after three days of clashes with several jihadist groups there, including the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
An Iraqi intelligence official confirmed that Kurdish rebels held the crossing point, adding that Baghdad brought reinforcements to the area to prevent any spillover of violence.
"They were heavy battles in which all types of weapons were used," said the Iraqi official on condition of anonymity in line with regulations. "Iraqi forces are ready to repel any attack."
Kurdish groups control a large swath of northern Syria. Clashes between their fighters and jihadists have killed hundreds of people in the past months. The Observatory said the Kurdish fighters, mostly members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD, also captured the Duty Free building and a cement factory in the area.
The border crossing point was under government control until March when hard-line rebels captured it. Syrian rebels, particularly the hard-line groups, are believed to draw support from insurgents in Iraq. Sunni Arabs dominate both the Syrian rebel movement and the Iraqi insurgency.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against President Bashar Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating the nation's cities and towns.
If government reports on the death of al-Golani are correct, then the capture of the Yaarobiyeh post would be the second set-back for al-Nusra and its allies in recent days.
But Loay al-Mikdad, a spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, said Syrian rebels did not report any recent clash in Latakia province. He says his group is unsure if al-Golani even exists.
"According to our information al-Golani was not killed," added al-Mikdad. "The Free Syrian Army's observation units confirm that there was no clash with Nusra Front (in the Latakia region). The person who is believed to be al-Golani or a top commander of the group was not there."
"This is part of the regime's lies. Our information from the ground says that this is not true and not accurate," al-Mikdad said by telephone.
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 rebellious 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.
The Observatory, 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.
In Daraa province in the south of the country, rebels captured the town of Tafas after weeks of fighting that left scores of people dead, the Observatory said. The government media did not report the battle.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Baghdad.