Activists in north-western Syria criticized Monday a worsening crackdown by al-Qaeda’s al-Nusra Front, following clashes in recent days which gave the extremists a stronger foothold in Idlib, the only province almost entirely under rebel control.

Idlib was one of several Syrian areas that have witnessed peaceful pro-democracy rallies in recent weeks, reminiscent of the early days of the Syrian uprising five years ago, with demonstrators taking advantage of a partial ceasefire that went into effect last month.

But activists have expressed growing concern that moderate forces are ceding their limited territory to more extreme groups.

This would serve the government's narrative that it is fighting terrorism and not a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, at a time when the UN is trying to kick start peace talks in Geneva.

"It all started two weeks ago when al-Nusra saw that some Syrians still believe in the importance of achieving democracy in Syria and reject the idea of setting up an Islamic state," Abu Mohammed, an activist living in Syria's north-western province of Idlib, told dpa by phone.

"The extremists did not like seeing demonstrations calling for freedom and democracy returned to the streets," Abu Rami al-Idlibi, a Syrian activist residing in eastern Lebanon, said.

Citing accounts from relatives in Idlib, he added that al-Nusra fighters cracked down on demonstrators in the province's town of Maaret al-Numan, triggering clashes with secular rebels there.

Photos on social media showed protestors burning an office used by al-Nusra, though this information could not be verified.

Other activists posted videos showing a group of women clad in black near a graveyard cursing al-Nusra.

"Maaret al-Numan is free, Nusra go out..," chanted the women who were protesting clashes between al-Nusra and US-backed rebel group Division 13.

On Sunday, al-Nusra overran bases of the group known as Division 13, and detained dozens of its members with the help of allied militants, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The hardliners reportedly captured rebel weapons, including US-made anti-tank missiles and armoured vehicles.

Idlib, which fell to rebels last year but has seen extremists gain ground in the province, is strategically important because it is located on the Turkish border and is a major supply route for rebels.

Al-Nusra and the Islamic State terrorist organization are excluded from the truce, which has been holding for more than two weeks in most parts of Syria.

The exclusion means that their forces can be targeted by air campaigns mounted separately by Russia and a US-led military alliance.

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