BEIRUT (Reuters) - A conservative Islamist rebel group in Syria, which has contested its hardline image in Western newspapers, mourned the death of the leader of the Taliban in a statement distributed online on Saturday.
Ahrar al-Sham, which is widely described by analysts as an ultra orthodox Salafist group, expressed "deep condolence" in the Arabic statement for Mullah Omar, who Afghanistan said on Wednesday had died more than two years ago.
It said the Taliban leader had "reminded us of new meanings of jihad and devotion," and had taught "how to build the (Islamic) emirate in the hearts of the people before it becomes a reality on the ground".
The statement comes after Ahrar al-Sham wrote opinion pieces last month - one published by the Washington Post and another by Britain's Daily Telegraph - in which it presented itself as a Syrian national force, distancing itself from cross-border jihadist groups.
It also said it would protect minorities in Syria.
Ahrar al-Sham is part of a military alliance in Syria that includes the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. The alliance, known as the Army of Conquest, captured nearly all of the northwestern province of Idlib from Syrian government forces earlier this year.
Ahrar al-Sham tried to differentiate itself from al Qaeda in the recent editorials but also warned the West against expecting a Sunni Muslim political movement "according to a Western liberal standard".
Western states, alarmed by the rise of the Nusra Front and Islamic State, have been reluctant to support Islamists in Syria's four-year war, instead backing factions grouped loosely under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. However, these factions have been increasingly eclipsed by Islamist groups.
One of the issues that has complicated Western cooperation with Ahrar al-Sham has been the links of one of its late leaders, Abu Khaled al-Soury, to al Qaeda.
Al-Soury fought alongside al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and was close to its current chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had pledged allegiance to the Taliban's Mullah Omar.
(Reporting by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Digby Lidstone)