Hundreds attend funeral of Syria goalkeeper turned rebel icon
Abdelbaset al-Sarout, 27 years old, rose to prominence as a goalkeeper for his home city Homs, a bastion of early revolutionary protests since subjected to a devastating siege and recaptured by Bashar al-Assad's regime. He also won international titles representing Syria.
When peaceful protesters took to the streets eight years ago, calling for an end to Assad's stranglehold on power, Sarout gained a second stardom as a revolutionary icon and popular singer of protest songs.
Sarout died on Saturday after he was wounded on Thursday night in clashes on the edge of the embattled Idlib region in northwest Syria.
After a brutal regime crackdown on the protests, he took up arms, eventually joining the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, with whom he was fighting when he was wounded.
He was among the hundreds of rebel fighters who were "evacuated" from Homs in 2014 under a deal of surrender which brought an end to the years-long suffocating siege.
When that armed battle became dominated by increasingly hard-line Islamist groups, Sarout was seen as a representative of the original aims of the revolution, although later, more hard-line statements made by the goalkeeper have marred his memory for some.
He came to be known as the "guardian of freedom", a play on the Arabic word for goalkeeper.
On Sunday, hundreds of supporters joined a procession of vehicles driving Sarout's body wrapped in a bright white shroud to the mosque in the northwestern village of Dana, an AFP reporter said.
Among them were fighters who brandished their weapons and fired shots into the air.
As his body was transported over the crowd outside the mosque, dozens held up their mobile phones to grab images.
A couple of men laid Sarout to rest in the deep red earth of a cemetery bordering golden fields, as hundreds thronged around to get a last glimpse of the young fighter.
Syrian activists and opposition supporters have flooded Twitter with eulogies for a man they describe as the "goalkeeper of the revolution" or "songbird of the revolution".
Lebanese political researcher and university professor Ziad Majed said Sarout was "the truest expression of the Syrian revolution, its twists and turns".
He went "from a peaceful protester and singer demanding dignity and freedom, to a fighter defending Homs... to successive changes of fighter identities," he wrote on Facebook.
He was "close for a while to extremism and its black banner, but then distanced himself and returned to the northern Hama countryside" where he was mortally wounded, Majed said.
Sarout starred in the documentary "Return to Homs", for which Syrian director Talal Derki was awarded at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014.
The Idlib region, which is dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, is supposed to be protected by a Turkish-Russian buffer zone deal.
But it has come under intense bombardment since last April from the regime and its Russian ally, killing more than 330 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
The aerial bombardment has also caused the damage or destruction of at least 24 medical facilities as well as the displacement of 300,000 people.
Since Thursday, jihadists and allied rebels have been battling pro-government fighters on the edge of the Idlib region in the north of Hama province, leaving more than 250 fighters dead in total, it said.
|Syrians attend the burial of late rebel fighter Abdel-Basset al-Sarout in al-Dana [AFP/Getty]|
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