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 country’s opposition.
The rare news conference by Mohammad Raid al-Shaqfa highlights the suspicions that his movement has raised in an already fractured opposition. The fundamentalist 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 Brotherhood 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 told reporters in Istanbul. He blamed accusations against his group on “lies and fabrications” that he said were spread by President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Some rebels say the Brotherhood is trying to control the uprising through the political opposition’s exiled groups, such as the Western-backed 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 as interim prime minister for the opposition. Some of his critics claimed the Muslim Brotherhood orchestrated the choice of Hitto, a Syrian-born U.S. citizen and a little-known figure prior to 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 curry favor on the ground in Syria. Labwani and about a dozen other members of the Coalition suspended their membership a day after it elected Hitto, complaining of the dominance of the Brotherhood in the Coalition.
“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 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.”
A senior member of the Coalition, Abdelbaset Sieda, said the Brotherhood feels misunderstood and worries that people are confusing the group with the ultraconservative Salafis and Islamic extremists who are now gaining prominence on the ground in the fight against Assad’s regime.
“There is a tendency to lump everything together,” said Sieda, who is not a member of the Brotherhood. He added that the group has benefited greatly from its experience in exile and is committed to a pluralistic, democratic society.
The Salafis and Islamic extremists, on the other hand, want to create an Islamic state based in post-Assad Syria.
Inside Syria, 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.
Amateur videos posted online show the minaret collapsing after what appears to have been a powerful explosion that left a cloud of gray smoke hovering over nearby houses. The video appeared to correspond to AP reporting from the area.
The state-run SANA news agency said Sunday that the Islamic extremist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which publicly announced its allegiance to al-Qaida last week, was behind the destruction. SANA accused 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.
The Center, which has tracked the dead, wounded and missing since the start of the uprising in March 2011, said it interviewed former detainees, who had been held in small crowded cells and beaten by guards.
Bashar El-Ahmed, a 31-year-old schoolteacher, said he was taken blindfolded to the detention center and realized after arrival that he was underground. He said guards beat him with batons, electric prods and cables. The report said El-Ahmed was accused of human right activism.
The Center’s claims could not be independently verified, but other rights groups including the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch have said thousands of opposition members, protesters and their families have been detained since the revolt against Assad’s rule started in March 2011.
Syria’s government rarely comments on claims by such groups.
None of the former detainees were able to give the exact location of the secret prison because they said they had been blindfolded during transfer there from an intelligence branch, the report said. They also said they had been held in small cells crammed with dozens of other prisoners.
The report did not say when the detentions occurred.
The conflict has come at a staggering cost.
The leaders of the five main U.N. humanitarian agencies issued an appeal Monday to political leaders involved in the crisis to find a solution and end the bloodshed.
“We ask that they use their collective influence to insist on a political solution to this horrendous crisis before hundreds of thousands more people lose their homes and lives and futures — in a region that is already at the tipping point,” the appeal said.
AP writers Zeina Karam in Beirut and Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed to this report.