BEIRUT: Syrian opposition fighters captured the northeastern city of Raqqa Monday and crowds toppled a statue of President Bashar Assad’s father, opposition sources and a resident said.
The events in Raqqa came as armed men from Syria carried out an ambush in western Iraq, killing 48 unarmed Syrian regime soldiers being transferred to the border, Damascus’ Defense Ministry said.
The fall of Raqqa on the Euphrates River would be a significant development in the 2-year-old revolt against Assad. The rebels do not claim to hold any other provincial capitals.
“The city of Raqqa has fallen,” Mustafa Nawaf al-Ali of the Syrian National Council told Reuters.
He said Islamist brigades, including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Sunni Hawks entered Raqqa after overrunning an army position at its northern entrance.
Activists declared also Raqqa “liberated” on opposition social media websites. A photo posted on several pro-rebel Facebook pages showed people tearing down a huge poster of Assad and hitting it with their shoes. The activists said the picture was taken inside the feared Air Force Intelligence headquarters in Raqqa.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the leader of Nusra Front in Raqqa was killed in the fighting.
An amateur video posted online shows a large, bronze statue of Hafez Assad being pulled to the ground by a rope tied around the statue’s neck. The video shows people in the crowd taking photos and video on their cellphones as the statue crashes into the side of a fountain, while others fired guns into the air in celebration. People then rush to jump on the statue and hit it with their shoes.
“God be with the Free Army!” they shout.
The video appeared consistent with AP reporting.
Amir, an activist in Raqqa, said rebels were now in control of the city but that there were pockets of pro-regime elements still fighting.
The mood was euphoric in the city when residents and rebels toppled the statue in the main square, but “then the shelling began and everyone fled home,” Amir said via Skype, with the crackle of gunfire audible in the background.
There were also airstrikes on the city and many casualties, he said, agreeing to give only his first name for security reasons.
Residents of the northeastern city, home to half a million people, had pleaded with rebels not to enter the densely built metropolitan area, fearing that Assad’s war planes and artillery could target residential areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group, said the Nusra Front and other rebel groups launched the offensive Saturday and large parts of Raqqa were now under rebel control.
Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks, capturing the country’s largest dam. On Sunday, anti-Assad fighters stormed the Raqqa central prison.
The Syrian National Council, a large bloc within the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, said the capture of Raqqa would prove “a decisive victory in the struggle for the downfall of the criminal Assad regime and to salvage Syria from the ugliest epoch in its history.”
Elsewhere, dozens of Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq for refuge were ambushed with bombs, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in an attack that killed 48 of them and heightened concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria’s civil war.
The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad’s apparent willingness to quietly aid Assad’s embattled regime.
The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on Al-Qaeda’s Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels’ most potent fighters.
Iraqi officials said the Syrians had sought refuge through the Rabiya border crossing in northern Iraq during recent clashes with rebels and were being escorted back home through a different crossing further south when the ambush occurred. Their convoy was struck near Akashat, not far from the Syrian border.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, provided the death toll and said nine Iraqi soldiers were also killed. The Syrians had been disarmed and included some who were wounded, he told the Associated Press.
He said the soldiers had been allowed into Iraq only on humanitarian grounds and insisted that Baghdad was not picking sides in the Syrian conflict.
“We do not want more soldiers to cross our borders and we do not want to be part of the problem,” Moussawi said. “We do not support any group against the other in Syria.”
The Iraqi Defense Ministry said 10 additional Syrians were wounded in the assault. In a statement, it warned all parties in the Syrian war against bringing the fight into Iraq, saying its response would be “firm and tough.”
Iraqi officials who provided details of the attack described a carefully orchestrated assault on the Syrians’ convoy, with a senior military intelligence official saying the attackers appeared to have been tipped off ahead of time.
He and another Iraqi official, who refused to be identified because they weren’t authorized to release the information, said it was unlikely that Syrian rebels had managed to cross into Iraq to carry out the attack.
“This attack bears the hallmarks of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization,” said Jassim al-Halbousi, provincial council member in Anbar, the restive western region where the attack happened. “The borders should be secured at the highest level of alert.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told AP last week that he feared a victory for rebels in the Syrian civil war would create a new extremist haven and destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his country and in Lebanon.
In the central city of Homs Monday, 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 center of Homs where rebels are holed up, including the Old City and neighborhoods of Jouret al-Shiah, Khaldiyeh and Qarabees, it said.
International powers are divided over Syria, with Russia and Shiite Iran supporting their historical ally Assad and the United States and Sunni Gulf countries backing the opposition.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Riyadh Monday said that Washington would work with its “friends to empower the Syrian opposition,” though he stressed there was no question of arming the rebels.