By Dominic Evans
BEIRUT, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Syrian air force jets bombardedthe eastern city of Deir al-Zor on Friday after heavy overnightclashes and the killing of one of President Bashar al-Assad'stop military intelligence officers, activists said.
General Jama'a Jama'a was shot dead on Thursday by snipersin the midst of a battle with rebels including forces linked toal Qaeda, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
His death, celebrated by rebels and opposition activists,marked a significant setback for Assad's bid to retain a holdover the city, capital of the eastern oil-producing province.
A death notice published on Facebook said Jama'a's body wasbeing flown back for burial on Friday in his home village ofZama in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean Sea - theheartland of Assad's Alawite sect.
Syria's 2-1/2-year civil war began as a peaceful protestmovement but has degenerated into a brutal civil war withsectarian dimensions. Syria's Sunni Muslim majority has largelyjoined the uprising against four decades of Assad family rule.Minority sects such as the Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'iteIslam, have largely stood behind the president.
Jama'a, 59, had served as Syria's top military intelligenceofficer in Lebanon until Damascus withdrew its forces from itssmaller neighbour under intense international pressure in 2005.
The withdrawal followed the Feb. 14, 2005 assassination ofLebanon's former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a killingwidely blamed at the time on Syria, and for which Jama'a himselfwas investigated, the Observatory said.
Jama'a was then appointed chief of military intelligence inDeir al-Zor, a prominent and sensitive position because of theflow of Sunni militants across the border into Iraq whereinsurgents were fighting U.S. and Iraqi Shi'ite forces.
In August 2011, five months after protests first eruptedagainst Assad, the European Union imposed sanctions on Jama'afor his role in "repression and violence against the civilianpopulation".
Activists say dozens of rebels and pro-Assad forces havebeen killed this week in heavy fighting around Deir al-Zor.
The Observatory reported clashes overnight in severaldistricts of the city overnight and said rebels from the alQaeda-linked Nusra Front executed 10 soldiers they captured inthe Rashidiyah district, where Jama'a was killed on Thursday.
While rebels had made progress and launched an attack on thenearby military airport, they were unlikely to achieve a speedyvictory in the strategic oil region which borders Iraq, theObservatory's Rami Abdulrahman said.
Although much of the oil-producing province of Deir al-Zoris under rebel control, some tribes remain loyal to Assad andcontrol of the city itself is shared between rebels andloyalists, he said.
PREPARING FOR PEACE TALKS
Syria's civil war has killed more than 100,000 people anddivided the Middle East between Sunni Gulf states and Turkeywhich mostly support the rebels and Shi'ite Iran and Hezbollahwhich have backed Assad.
International efforts are growing to convene peace talks inGeneva next month, encouraged by rare agreement among globalpowers over the elimination of Syria's chemical weapons afterSarin gas attacks near Damascus in August.
But the United States and Russia, responding to Syria'sannouncement that the talks would go ahead in Geneva on November23-24, said on Thursday that no date had yet been set.
The international envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, is dueto hold talks in the Middle East next week to try to prepare forthe negotiations, his spokeswoman Khawla Mattar said.
Mattar said Brahimi would start his tour in Cairo onSaturday, meeting Egypt's foreign minister. A visit to Tehranwas still being discussed, she said.
Chemical weapons experts have so far visited around half thesites they are due to inspect in the early stages of theirmission to oversee the elimination of an arsenal believed tocontain 1,000 tonnes of chemical agents and precursors.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weaponssaid on Thursday it was confident that it would meet deadlinesfor the destruction of the chemical stockpiles, although itstill faces major challenges.
At least one site linked to Syria's chemical weaponsprogramme - near the northern town of Safira - is close toongoing battles between rebels and Assad's forces.
Malik Ellahi, special adviser to the OPCW's director AhmetUzumcu, said discussions were being held to gain access to sitesin sensitive locations.
- Unrest, Conflicts & War
- Politics & Government