The head of a Syrian paramilitary force and cousin of President Bashar Assad died Sunday in clashes with rebels near the coastal city of Latakia, sources inside Syria said.
Syrian state media confirmed reports that Hillal Assad, head of the National Defense Forces, was killed near the border town of Kasab, 59 kilometers north of the pro-Assad city.
The National Defense Forces, a paramilitary force subordinate to the Syrian Army, is believed to be modeled after Iran’s Basij militia, and trained by Iran.
According to a statement published by a rebel group known as the Islamic Front, Assad’s cousin was killed by a Grad rocket in Latakia around 7:15 p.m. They claimed that Hillal was meeting with commanders in the home of Fawwaz Assad — the son of former president Hafez Assad’s brother.
Activists and state media reported earlier on Sunday that Syrian troops battled opposition fighters for control of a border post on the Turkish frontier.
— S. Rifai (@THE_47th) March 23, 2014
Rebels have been on the offensive since Friday in the border area of northwestern Latakia province, where they captured a crossing point into Turkey.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy fighting Sunday around Kasab, a town with a large Armenian community near the Turkish border.
Syrian state television quoted an unnamed military official as saying that government forces inflicted “heavy losses” among rebels. State TV says the rebels entered Syria from Turkey.
The Observatory also reported clashes in the contested northern city of Aleppo, which is divided between rebel and government forces.
Earlier in the day, Turkish planes shot down a Syrian jet that Ankara said strayed into its airspace.