BEIRUT: Syrian rebels seized a key town in the northwest Tuesday, in a move that was expected to slow the regime’s efforts to break a stalemate in the metropolis of Aleppo.
The rebel advance on the town of Maaret al-Numan in the governorate of Idlib came as the regime said its troops entered the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldieh in Homs, although activist groups denied that government forces had overrun the district.
The rebel battalions overran Maaret al-Numan, located on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, after a fierce 48-hour gunbattle and heavy shelling, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“This is a strategic location on the route from Damascus to Aleppo. All the regime reinforcements headed to Aleppo must pass through Maaret al-Numan,” it added.
“This is your tank, O Bashar!” a group of about 20 rebels shouted in a video posted by activists online as they fired off celebratory gunfire at a captured army checkpoint.
Rebels have released a series of videos detailing the battle for Maaret al-Numan, as well as the taking of nearby villages of Bdama and Khirbet al-Joz, which they say will bolster their control over areas bordering Turkey.
The rebels’ seizure of the Maaret al-Numan came as government soldiers moved into Homs, farther south on the same highway, in a bid to finish off insurgents in the central city and free up forces for northern battle zones.
While pro-opposition websites acknowledged that the army entered part of the neighborhood, the Observatory said Khaldieh remained in rebel hands, although fighting was intense.
“The catastrophe is that there are 800 families trapped in Homs. It will be an unprecedented massacre if they take over the district,” said an activist, who identified himself as Abu Bilal.
The army onslaught around Homs sparked a new exodus of refugees into neighboring Lebanon, with up to 400 people fleeing from the nearby area of Qusayr within 24 hours, a Lebanese security official said.
A security official told AFP on Monday the army hoped to eliminate the last pockets of resistance in Homs and nearby Qusayr by the week’s end to free up troops for battle zones in the north, such as Aleppo.
On the Turkish border, no cross-border shelling was reported for the first time in a week, although Ankara continued to warn Syria that it would not hesitate to retaliate for any strike on its territory.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of retaliation against Syria’s “aggressive position.”
“It has become inevitable for our armed forces to retaliate in kind ... as the Syrian administration maintains its aggressive position,” he told MPs.
Erdogan spoke as his armed forces chief inspected troops on a tour of the heavily fortified border after a number of shells landed on Turkish soil, including one strike that killed five civilians last week.
For its part, NATO warned against any escalation in hostilities between Syria and Turkey after border artillery exchanges as alliance defense ministers prepare for a difficult withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“I would like to commend the Turkish government for the restraint it has shown in its response to the completely unacceptable Syrian attacks,” NATO head Anders Fogh Rasmussen said at the opening of a two-day ministers meeting.
“Obviously Turkey has a right to defend herself within international law,” Rasmussen said.
“We hope it [protecting Turkey] won’t be necessary, we hope that both countries will show restraint and avoid an escalation of the crisis,” he said.
Turkey as a NATO member has the right to invoke military help in response to an attack on its territory under Article V, but it has so far invoked only Article IV, which involves consultations.
Pressed later in the day, Fogh Rasmussen reiterated his position, insisting on the importance of a political solution in Syria and saying there was no reason to focus on the issue of NATO contingency plans being ready for Turkey’s defense.
“I think you would be surprised if a defense alliance ... didn’t have in place necessary plans to defend and protect all our allies,” he said.
Fogh Rasmussen’s comments came as the Dogan agency quoted unidentified military sources as saying that at least 25 additional F-16 fighter jets were deployed at Turkey’s Diyarbakir air base in the southeast late Monday.
A senior U.S. defense official said the alliance would likely react if Turkey made a request for assistance.
“The allies would have to hear what Turkey says and decide what kind of assistance the alliance should bring,” he said. “We engage with Turkey to make sure that should the time come where Turkey needs help we’re able to do what we can.”
In the evening, activists and opposition websites reported the sounds of explosions and clashes in Harasta and other eastern suburbs of Damascus. Harasta was the site of twin suicide bombings that targeted an Air Force Intelligence compound near Damascus late Monday and killed dozens of people, the Observatory said.
Pro-government media remained silent the attacks, while a security official told AFP that the assault had been largely foiled, although some people were hurt when one vehicle blew up.
The blasts were claimed by the jihadi Al-Nusra Front, which said one attacker drove a booby-trapped car and a second an explosives-packed ambulance.
The Observatory’s Abdel-Rahman said “dozens of people” died in the bombings, and that the fate of “hundreds of prisoners” held in the building’s basement was unknown.
“The regime has not said a word about what happened last night. I hold the regime responsible for the fate of the prisoners. They shouldn’t be holding all of these people in the first place,” he said.
The Observatory said violence across Syria killed at least 100 people on Tuesday, while the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists, put the figure at 115, with 50 killed in Damascus and areas surrounding the capital.
Separately, the first formal camp inside Syria for civilians driven from their homes by the nearly 19-month conflict began admitting displaced families, an AFP correspondent reported.
The camp, a stone’s throw from the Turkish border, opened its doors amid mounting pressure from Ankara for the international community to do more for the displaced inside Syria to stem any new exodus of refugees.