MAARET AL-NUMAN/DAMASCUS, Syria: Blown-up buildings, deserted streets and corpses of regime soldiers bear testimony to a fierce 48-hour battle before the town of Maaret al-Numan fell to Syrian rebels.
The capture of Maaret al-Numan Wednesday was a major breakthrough for the rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces, especially after they cut off the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.
Rebels say the fight to capture Maaret al-Numan began Monday afternoon when the local military council attacked eight army checkpoints in the eastern part of this strategic town, which in normal times has a population of around 125,000.
Within 48 hours the rebels captured the checkpoints located at crossroads of the town, including a former prison and cultural center, said Firaz Abdel-Hadi, a rebel media official.
Sixteen rebels were killed by a land mine when they entered the cultural center after it had been abandoned by members of the regime’s military intelligence when it came under attack.
In the basement lay the bodies of around 65 prisoners who the rebels say were executed by their captors minutes before fleeing.
Most of the victims are suspected of having been supporters of the anti-regime uprising or soldiers suspected of trying to defect, said a survivor who was miraculously saved after two bodies fell on him.
The walls of the building are riddled with bullets and stained with blood – witness to the massacre as soldiers fled. Thirty soldiers managed to escape wearing civilian clothes as the rebels advanced. “Two RPGs were enough to send 50 soldiers fleeing,” boasted Abdel-Hadi, laughing.
By Wednesday all loyalist positions in the town finally fell to rebels as Assad’s troops took refuge in two military camps on the outskirts of Maaret al-Numan, at Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh.
For the regime, the imperative was not to control the whole town, since its western sector had already been in rebel hands for the past two months, but to defend the highway from Aleppo to Damascus.
Syria’s army uses the highway to send reinforcements to the commercial capital in northern Syria. On Thursday, rebels had control of nearly 5 kilometers of the four-lane highway.
Fierce fighting continued further east around the neighborhoods of Wadi Daif and Hamdiyeh where rebels have surrounded key military bases, blocking columns of regime tanks sent as reinforcements from Damascus to Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Syrian troops tried during the night to retake Maaret al-Numan but failed, rebel commander Akram Sale told AFP, adding that four rebels were killed overnight.
A bomb dropped by a MiG Tuesday fell just meters away from the famous museum Alma Arra, damaging part of its mosaic collections and pottery, some dating back to 3,000 B.C.
The museum, which was previously occupied by regime troops is renowned for its mosaic collections, said to be the largest in the Middle East.
The rebels said that almost 300 people were killed in the three days of fighting in Maaret al-Numan, including 55 civilians, 46 rebel fighters and 190 Syrian army soldiers.
In separate violence around the country Thursday, government forces intensified their bombardment of the central city of Homs and nearby town of Qusayr, which it has vowed to overrun by the end of the week to free up forces for northern battle zones.
The opposition Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said that many lives were lost in Idlib province Thursday, but that the ferocity of the clashes meant activists were unable to report on them.
Its early nationwide toll for the day was at least 155 deaths – 62 soldiers, 51 civilians and 42 rebels – adding to its overall tally of more than 32,000 killed in the nearly 19-month conflict.