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Syria Muslim Brotherhood denies seeking power grab

Monday - 4/15/2013, 3:30pm  ET

BARBARA SURK
Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) -- The exiled leader of Syria's Muslim Brotherhood denied Monday widespread accusations by other pro-rebel political factions that the group is seeking to impose its will on other members of the opposition.

The rare news conference by Mohammad Raid al-Shaqfa highlights the suspicions that his movement has raised in an already fractured opposition. The group has a powerful donor network among members in exile and supporters in oil-rich Gulf countries, especially Qatar. Many in the opposition say the group uses its support and money as key levers for influence.

"Our aim is not to tear apart but to unite the (Syrian) opposition," al-Shaqfa said at the news conference in Istanbul, where he is based. He blamed accusations against his group on "lies and fabrications" that he said were spread by the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Some rebels say that the Brotherhood is trying to control the uprising through exiled political groups like the Syrian National Coalition umbrella bloc, marginalizing fighters inside the country from non-Islamist groups. They say the movement is positioning itself to take power once the war against Assad is won.

Tensions within the opposition rose last month with the election of Ghassan Hitto, a little known figure, as interim prime minister for the opposition. Some of his critics claimed the Muslim Brotherhood was behind his election.

Among those who regularly attack the Brotherhood are veteran secular dissidents such as Kamal Labwani, who accuses the group of using money to build allegiances on the ground in Syria. He and about a dozen other members of the coalition suspended their membership a day after it elected Hitto, complaining of the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood in the council.

"We say with all honesty that we didn't know Ghassan Hitto before he was nominated for the post," al-Shaqfa said.

Al-Shaqfa also denied that the Muslim Brotherhood is positioning itself to grab power should Assad's regime fall.

"These are all lies, slanderous statements against the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. "We are not after any gains and we do not seek power. We await the fall of this regime so that the people can practice their role in choosing their own leaders," al-Shaqfa added.

His comments came as Syrian activists reported that government warplanes carried out more airstrikes around the country.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Assad's aircraft hit targets in rebel-held areas near the capital Damascus, in the northern city of Aleppo, and in Homs in central Syria.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Monday's airstrikes.

In Lebanon, official media said a rocket fired from Syria exploded in the Lebanese border village of al-Qasr. The National News Agency did not say if there were any casualties in the latest incident on the volatile border between the two countries.

Fears that fighting in Syria could reignite sectarian tensions in Lebanon have put the country on edge. Assad's supporters and opponents in Syria's smaller neighbor have clashed often in the past months.

Meanwhile, Assad's regime and the opposition accused each other for the destruction of a minaret belonging to one of the country's historic mosques in the southern city of Daraa.

Mosques have served as a launching pad for anti-government protests in Syria, and many have been targeted. The Omari Mosqe in Daraa, birthplace of the Syrian revolution, was particularly a rallying point for some of the earliest anti-government demonstrations.

Opposition activists said Monday that regime forces had targeted the Omari Mosque during fighting over the weekend. The mosque was built during the Islamic conquest of Syria in the days of Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab in the 7th century.

Videos posted by activists online show the minaret collapsing after what appears to have been a powerful explosion. A cloud of gray smoke hovers over nearby houses. Although it was impossible verify who was behind it, the video appeared to correspond to AP reporting from the area.

The state-run SANA news agency said Sunday that the radical Muslim rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra was behind the destruction, accusing the group of positioning cameras around the area to record the event.

Also Monday, a Syria-based human rights group said in a report that Assad's military unit in charge of protecting Damascus is running secret prisons holding hundreds of suspected regime opponents.

The Violations Documentation Center said the regime's 4th Division runs detention centers in its bases in and around Damascus.

The division is commanded by Maher Assad, the president's younger brother. It is considered a pillar of military forces and is charged with defending the capital, the seat of Assad's power.

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