Star footballer turned rebel icon dies in Syria fighting

AZAZ, Syria (Reuters) – A Syrian star football player turned fighter who became an icon of the revolt died on Saturday after getting injured battling government forces in the northwest, his faction said.

Abdelbasset Sarout, 27, once a well-known goalkeeper from the city of Homs, gained a new kind of fame when the popular uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in 2011.

He was dubbed the “singer of the revolution” for chanting songs at rallies that eulogised slain protesters or vilified the president.

After the crackdown on protests, Sarout took up arms against the state, mirroring how the rebellion evolved into an armed struggle seen as a fight to the death as much by Damascus as by the guerrilla bands spawned by the conflict.

Sarout, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel faction, died two days after sustaining injuries in battle in the northern Hama countryside.

“Those who think Sarout has died are under an illusion. We will all remain Sarout,” Samer al-Saleh, a senior official in the faction said.

Battles intensified in northwest Syria on Friday after insurgents mounted an attack to repel an army offensive that has pounded the country’s last major rebel stronghold for weeks.

The violence in Idlib province and a strip of nearby Hama marks the biggest military escalation between Damascus and its insurgent enemies since last summer. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes, many of them sheltering at the Turkish border from air strikes that have killed scores of people.

Assad has reclaimed much of Syria after crushing rebel bastions with the help of Russia and Iran. The northwest corner remains the last big chunk in opposition hands, including Idlib and a swathe of territory to the north under the control of Turkey-backed rebels.

Sarout was among hundreds of thousands of people, civilians and fighters, shuttled to the northwest in recent years under surrender deals as the state recovered their hometowns.

Sarout, who fought in his city of Homs, left in 2014 when such a withdrawal deal ended a bitter two-year siege.

Four of Sarout’s brothers, as well as his father, had all died in earlier fighting against pro-government forces.

Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian

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