Syrian cleric assassinated in Aleppo-aides

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DAMASCUS, Sept 28 (Reuters) A Syrian cleric who recruited foreigners travelling to Iraq to fight US-led forces was assassinated in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo today, his aides said.

Sheikh Mahmoud Abou al-Qaqa was shot dead after he emerged from prayers, they told Reuters.

''A man fired several bullets into the Sheikh's chest. A crowd chased him and he was eventually caught. He is now with the authorities under custody,'' said Ahmad Haidar, one of the aides to the young cleric.

''Sheikh Qaaq died in hospital. His killers do not want Muslims to unite.'' There was no immediate comment from the government.

Qaqa had thousands of followers and operated in the mysterious world of Islamist movements in Aleppo, a once liberal trading hub that has become more religious in recent years.

He had called for jihad, or holy war, to counter U S policies against Syria. Experts say he had toned down his rhetoric lately and become less active.

Qaqa disappeared from the Aleppo scene last year. He returned this year and became head of a religious school. He led prayers at a mosque in the northern part of the city.

''I challenge anyone to prove that I had ever called for unlawful resistance or indiscriminate violence against any country,'' Qaqa once said.

The Syrian government is accused by Washington and the pro-US government in Baghdad of helping foreign fighters behind sectarian killings and attacks on US soldiers.

Damascus denies helping rebels. Syria has been ruled by the Baath Party since 1963 and is a tightly controlled country.

Reuters MP VP0145

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