Sun, Sep 30, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Cleric killed in Syria, gunman caught

RECRUITER The Muslim cleric was shot after Friday prayers for his `nationalist positions,' his aides said. The aides captured the assassin and turned him over to the authorities

AP , DAMASCUS

A Sunni Muslim cleric who in the past has been suspected of recruiting militants to fight in Iraq was shot dead as he left a mosque after prayers on Friday in the northern city of Aleppo, aides said.

Mohammed Gul Aghassi, 34, was instantly killed by a gunman who pumped five bullets into his body as he left the Imam Mosque where he regularly preaches after the noon prayers.

The aide, Ahmed Sadeq, said he pursued the gunman and captured him, handing him over to authorities.

Sadeq accused "terrorists" of killing Aghassi for his "nationalist positions." He did not elaborate.

Sheik Samir Mohammed Ghazal Abu Khashbeh, another aide to the slain cleric, said the gunman fled in a waiting pickup truck and he was chased and arrested along with the driver.

He said two worshippers who happened to be nearby were shot and wounded, one in the leg and one in the pelvis.

Abu Khashbeh said the attacker told him he shot the cleric "because he [Aghassi] was an agent of the Americans."

"The one who carried out the assassination was a prisoner of the American forces in Iraq and has been released some time ago. He is known to us," he said.

Such attacks are uncommon in Syria, a country where security is generally tight. But Syrian security forces have occasionally clashed with Islamic militants.

Aghassi, also known as Abu al-Qaqa, headed a theology school in Aleppo, Syria's second-largest city.

Western media in 2005 cited interviews with Sunni insurgents saying that he was a prominent figure in recruiting Arab fighters and helping funnel them into Iraq to fight US and Iraqi troops. Some of the insurgents in the reports raised suspicions he was also informing Syrian security about their movements.

Aghassi denied any links to networks taking insurgents into Iraq.

In June of last year, Syrian anti-terrorism police fought Islamic militants near the Defense Ministry on Friday in a gunbattle that killed five people and wounded four.

Among the evidence recovered from the bodies of the fighters were CD-ROMs of Aghassi's speeches but the cleric denied that he had any links to the group of extremists.

Syria has been accused by the US of not doing enough to stem the flow of militants across its desert border into Iraq.

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