DAMASCUS, Mar 5 – Syrian rebels overran the northern city of Raqa on Monday, scoring their biggest victory since the outbreak of a revolt against President Bashar al-Assad almost two years ago.
In central Syria, insurgents battled a major army offensive to capture rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, a watchdog reported, as the US said it would work to “empower” the opposition.
Reflecting the regional spillover from the conflict, dozens of unarmed and wounded Syrian soldiers who had crossed the border to escape weekend fighting were killed in western Iraq along with nine Iraqis as gunmen from Syria ambushed their convoy, Iraqi officials said.
After days of fierce clashes, the rebels were now in “near-total control” of Raqa, “except for some regime positions, including the military security and Baath party headquarters,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“This is the first provincial capital in Syria where rebels have made such progress,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
The Observatory said Al-Nusra Front jihadists fought alongside other rebel groups in the battle for the northern city, which is strategically located on the Euphrates river near the Turkish border.
In Raqa, residents destroyed a statue of Assad’s father and predecessor Hafez al-Assad, according to amateur video footage distributed by activists.
“Come here Bashar (al-Assad) and see what happened to your father’s statue!” cried an unidentified cameraman, as he filmed young residents beating the fallen statue with their shoes, in scenes reminiscent of the 2003 fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Raqa was once home to 240,000 residents, but around 800,000 people forced to flee violence in other parts of Syria have sought shelter there since the start of the conflict, which has claimed more than 70,000 lives, according to the UN.
On Monday alone, at least 105 people were killed across Syria, said the Observatory, adding that 30 of them were civilians.
— Homs fighting —
In the central city of Homs, insurgents fought a fierce army onslaught aimed at crushing rebel enclaves in what activists have dubbed “the capital of the revolution”.
The fighting in Homs “is the worst fighting in months and there are dozens of dead and wounded among the assailants,” said the Observatory, which relies on a network of medics and activists on the ground for its information.
Regular troops backed by pro-regime militiamen attacked the centre of Homs where rebels are holed up, including the Old City and neighbourhoods of Jouret al-Shiah, Khaldiyeh and Qarabees, it said.
“We were able to document a death toll of 219 for fighters from both sides for Sunday alone, but we are certain the actual toll is even higher,” said the Observatory’s Abdel Rahman.
In the northern province of Aleppo, a day after rebels captured a police academy in Khan al-Assal, pro-regime daily Al-Watan said insurgents “massacred” 115 policemen in the complex.
“Armed men committed a horrific massacre in the police academy, leaving 115 dead and another 50 injured,” said Al-Watan.
And in Iraq, the prime minister’s spokesman said unidentified armed men ambushed a convoy carrying Syrian soldiers who had entered via the Yaarubiyeh border crossing, the site of weekend fighting, killing 48 Syrian and nine Iraqi soldiers.
“This confirms our fears of the attempt of some to move the conflict to Iraq, but we will face these attempts by all sides with all of our power,” Ali Mussawi, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s spokesman, told AFP.
Iraq’s defence ministry said a Syrian “terrorist group that infiltrated into Iraqi territory” carried out the attack.
It said a number of unarmed and wounded Syrian soldiers had fled to Iraq for medical treatment and were being transferred to Al-Walid border crossing to be returned to Syria through “official channels.”
But they were ambushed on the way, in what the ministry termed “an attack against the sovereignty of Iraq, its land, and its dignity, and a clear violation of human rights, as (the soldiers) were wounded and unarmed.”
The latest bloodshed came as US Secretary of State John Kerry said in Riyadh that Washington will work with its “friends to empower the Syrian opposition,” though he stressed there was no question of arming the rebels.