Middle East

Syria's al-Nusra Front 'part of al-Qaeda'

A fighter from Jabhat al-Nusra runs as the group's base is shelled in Raqqa province, eastern Syria, in March 14, 2013
Image caption Jihadists have been at the centre of much of the recent fighting in Syria

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has confirmed for the first time that a prominent jihadist group fighting in Syria is part of its network.

The al-Nusra Front is at the forefront of the armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's regime.

The leader of the Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda said that al-Nusra is battling for an Islamic state in Syria.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State in Iraq, added that both groups were merging.

He said: "We announce the abolition of the Islamic state of Iraq's name and Jabhat Al-Nusra's name and their amalgamation in one state under one name: The Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant."

The declaration, made in an audio message posted online, has confirmed widespread suspicions of links between the two groups and of al-Qaeda's presence in Syria.

The al-Nusra Front, or Jabhat al-Nusra, first appeared in January 2012 and is the best known of the militant Islamist groups involved in the fighting.

It has claimed to be behind most of the suicide bombings that have hit Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.

The US has put al-Nusra on a blacklist of terrorist organisations.

The declaration will raise concerns about weapons falling into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated militants.

Last month in a joint news conference with the Qatari Prime Minister, the US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of the importance of ensuring that weapons went to what he called "the right people" in Syria.

However Mr Kerry acknowledged that there could be no "100% guarantee", which took pressure off the Qataris who have been criticised for arming jihadist groups such as al-Nusra.

In the latest spate of violence, a car bomb exploded in the centre of the capital Damascus on Monday, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens, according to state media.

No group has admitted responsibility for the attack.