BEIRUT: Syrian air force jets bombarded the eastern city of Deir al-Zor Friday after heavy overnight clashes and the killing of one of President Bashar Assad’s top military intelligence officers, activists said.
General Jamaa Jamaa was shot dead Thursday by snipers in the midst of a battle with rebels including Al-Qaeda-linked forces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
His death, celebrated by rebels and opposition activists, marked a significant setback for Assad’s bid to retain a hold over the city, capital of the eastern oil-producing province.
A death notice published on Facebook said Jamaa’s body was being flown back for burial in his home village of Zama in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
While state media provided no details about Jamaa’s death, several mainstream Free Syria Army battalions claimed credit for the killing. One FSA spokesman said Jamaa was killed by a roadside bomb, while according to some jihadist Internet forums, Islamist fighters were behind the act.
Jamaaa, 59, served as Syria’s top military intelligence officer in Lebanon until Damascus withdrew its forces from its smaller neighbor under intense international pressure in 2005.
The withdrawal followed the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a killing widely blamed at the time on Syria, and for which Jamaa himself was investigated by a United Nations team.
Jamaa was then appointed chief of military intelligence in Deir al-Zor, a prominent and sensitive position due to the flow of Sunni militants across the border into Iraq where insurgents were fighting U.S. and Iraqi Shiite forces.
In August 2011, five months after protests first erupted against Assad, the EU imposed sanctions on Jamaa for his role in “repression and violence against the civilian population.”
Activists say dozens of rebels and pro-Assad forces were killed this week in heavy fighting around Deir al-Zor.
The Observatory reported clashes overnight in several districts of the city and said rebels from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front executed 10 soldiers they captured in the Rashidieh district, where Jamaa was killed.
While rebels had made progress and launched an attack on the nearby military airport, they were unlikely to achieve a speedy and complete victory in the strategic oil region, the Observatory’s Rami Abdel-Rahman said.
Although much of Deir al-Zor province is under rebel control, some tribes remain loyal to Assad and control of the city itself is shared between rebels and loyalists, he said.
Between Deir al-Zor and the desert town of Tadmur, the village of Sukhneh was under rebel attack led by the Islam Brigade, according to several opposition sources. State media acknowledged fighting was taking place in the village.
In Aleppo province, 12 Kurds were killed when Assad’s forces bombarded Tal Aran village, about 6 kilometers north of Safira, according to the Observatory, which monitors the conflict through medical and military sources.
It said 21 people had died in the village, which is controlled by the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), in the last 24 hours.
Tal Aran lies close to Safira, which government forces have been trying to wrest from hard-line Islamist rebels for the past few weeks. A military complex near Safira is believed to include an underground facility for chemical weapons production and storage.
Tal Aran’s residents are mostly ethnic Kurds whose militias were pushed out by rebels of ISIS in July. Now they are caught in the crossfire between the extremist rebels and Syrian forces.
Near the town of Khanasser in the same province, rebels killed 20 Syrian soldiers in clashes, the Observatory said. It wasn’t immediately clear which rebel group killed the soldiers.
South of Safira, at least 20 Syrian troops and seven rebel fighters were killed in a dawn attack by rebels on an air defense base. There have been regular clashes in the region in recent weeks as Assad’s forces have sought to open a supply route from the south to Aleppo, bypassing the main north-south highway which is partly under rebel control.
Rebels also continued to push ahead with an offensive in rural Hama, and released a video claiming they had overrun a regime checkpoint north of the provincial capital.
The weekly Friday protests were held in solidarity with the Damascus suburb of Moadamieh, whose residents have been suffering from a harsh siege by regime forces, leading to malnutrition, and sometimes even death.