- Father Francois Murad’s death was confirmed by Vatican news agency
- Footage of 49-year-old’s gruesome death was filmed on a camera phone
- The Syrian priest was killed last 23 June in Gassanieh, northern Syria
A Syrian Catholic priest has been beheaded by jihadist fighters in Syria, it has been claimed.
The death of Franciscan Father Francois Murad has been confirmed by the official Vatican news agency.
The gruesome killing has raised further concerns about the West arming rebels in the fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Grainy footage purported to show the 49-year-old’s death has been posted on the internet.
Father Francois, was killed on 23 June in Gassanieh, in northern Syria.
He had been staying in the convent of the Custody of the Holy Land.
Catholic.org linked to the video and reported: ‘Syrian terrorists have beheaded a Catholic priest who they accused of collaborating with the Assad regime. Those accusations have not yet been verified.’
Fides News Agency said: ‘According to local sources, the monastery where Fr. Murad was staying was attacked by militants linked to the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra.’
Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the Front for the Protection of the Syrian People, is an Al Qaeda associated group, described as ‘the most aggressive and successful arm of the rebel force.’
In the video, filmed on a camera phone and posted on LiveLeak, three men – including a man reported to be Father Francois – are seen sitting on the dusty ground as a crowd around them cheers.
The man, wearing a brown robe, is filmed sitting cross-legged with his hands apparently bound.
He is pulled forward and laid face down on the grass as the crowd chant ‘Allahu akbar’ and take photos.
He is then decapitated, using what looks like a rudimentary kitchen knife.
Dozens of camera phones are shoved forward by the baying crowd as the scene turns more bloody.
Fides News Agency says the ‘circumstances of the death are not fully understood’ but said his death has been confirmed by the Custos of the Holy Land – the convent where Father Francois had been staying.
It has not been confirmed Father Francois was beheaded.
Assad’s forces pounded Sunni Muslim rebels in the city of Homs with artillery and from the air on Sunday, the second day of their offensive in central Syria, activists said.
They said rebels defending the old centre of Homs and five adjacent Sunni districts had largely repelled a ground attack on Saturday by Assad’s forces, backed by guerrillas from the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, but reported clashes and deaths within the city on Sunday.
Mohammad Mroueh, a member of the opposition ‘Homs Crisis Cell’ said at least 25 loyalist troops including four Hezbollah fighters had been killed in Homs in the previous 24 hours.
Such reports are difficult to verify in Syria, where independent media cannot usually report freely.
The opposition Syrian National Coalition said in a statement that it feared that Assad’s forces will use chemical weapons on the city ‘after the regime’s campaign on Homs failed to achieve any important results.’
The offensive follows steady military gains by Assad’s forces, backed by Hezbollah, in villages in Homs province and towns close to the Lebanese border.
Opposition sources and diplomats said the loyalist advance had tightened the siege of Homs and secured a main road link to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon and to army bases in Alawite-held territory near the Syrian coast, the main entry point for Russian arms that have given Assad an advantage in firepower.
At least 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian revolt against four decades of rule by Assad and his late father erupted in March 2011, making the uprising the bloodiest of the Arab Spring revolutions against entrenched autocrats.
The Syrian conflict is increasingly pitting Assad’s Alawite minority, backed by Shi’ite Iran and its Hezbollah ally, against mainly Sunni rebel brigades supported by the Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey and others.
Sunni Jihadists, including al Qaeda fighters from Iraq, have also entered the fray.
The loyalist advances have alarmed international supporters of the rebels, leading the United States to announce it will step up military support.
Saudi Arabia has accelerated deliveries of sophisticated weaponry, Gulf sources say.
Opposition activists said a woman and child had been killed in a strike by government aircraft on the old city of Homs, home to hundreds of civilians.
Video footage taken by the activists showed the bodies being carried in blankets and a man holding a wounded child with a gash in his head.
Rebel fighters fought loyalist forces backed by tanks in the old covered market, which links the old city with Khalidiya, a district inhabited by members of tribes who have been at the forefront of the armed insurgency.
‘After failing to make any significant advances yesterday, the regime is trying to sever the link between Khalidiya and the old city,’ Abu Bilal, one of the activists, said from Homs.
‘We are seeing a sectarian attack on Homs par excellence, The army has taken a back role. Most of the attacking forces are comprised of Alawite militia being directed by Hezbollah.’
Alawites belong to an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam and have controlled Syria since the 1960s, when members of the sect took over the army and security apparatus in the mainly Sunni country.
Activists said loyalist forces have been issued with masks as protection against chemical weapons.
They said sarin gas had been used in the past few months to dislodge rebel fighters from Deir Baalba, a town northeast of Homs.
‘Old Homs and the adjacent areas have been under siege for more than a year and unless the fighters receive new weapons quickly the regime’s new tactics of levelling neighbourhood after neighbourhoods will eventually force the rebels out,’ said an opposition campaigner who did not want to be named.
‘Chemical weapons will accelerate the regime’s takeover of Homs,’ he added.
Syrian authorities have denied using chemical weapons in the conflict and accused the opposition of using them.
The United States has concluded that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.
Saudi Arabia, a foe of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has urged the European Union to arm Syrian rebels without delay, following similar action by the United States.
The European Union lifted restrictions on arming the rebels in May when it failed to renew a weapons arms embargo before it expired on June 1. But Britain and France, which had advocated lifting the ban, said they would not send weapons before Aug. 1.
‘The Syrian opposition is not only fighting an illegitimate regime, but also fighting a foreign occupier,’ Saudi state news agency SPA quoted Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal as telling an EU-GCC ministerial meeting in Bahrain on Sunday.
He was referring to Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah forces that have joined in recent fighting alongside Assad’s military, notably spearheading the capture of the border town of Qusair.
‘The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia … refers to the EU resolution to lift the ban on arming the Syrian opposition, and calls for the implementation of this resolution in light of the grievous realities on the ground in Syria,’ Prince Saud said.
Gains by Assad’s forces and Hezbollah’s involvement have prompted the United States to promise the rebels military aid beyond the non-lethal equipment it had previously supplied.
The New York Times reported in June that the supplies, to be coordinated by the CIA, might include anti-tank weapons.