Assad fights back with air strikes on rebel-held city

A statue of former Syrian president Hafez Assad is pulled down in a Raqqa square. Picture: AP

A statue of former Syrian president Hafez Assad is pulled down in a Raqqa square. Picture: AP

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Syrian government warplanes struck captured security buildings in Raqqa yesterday, a day after euphoric rebels seized much of the northern city and captured the provincial governor, one of the highest-ranking officials to fall into their hands.

Fighters also battled pockets of regime loyalists for complete control of Raqqa, a city of some 500,000 people on the Euphrates river. If the opposition succeeds, it would mark the first time an entire city has fallen into opposition hands, dealing both a strategic and a symbolic blow to president Bashar ­al-Assad’s regime.

Air strikes and intermittent clashes yesterday raised questions about whether the rebels would be able to maintain their hold on the city.

The British-based Syrian ­Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters captured the governor of Raqqa province, Hassan Jalali, after clashes overnight near his office in the provincial capital with the same name. The Observatory said the head of Mr Assad’s ruling Baath party in the province, ­Salman al-Salman, was also in rebel custody.

Several key regime figures have defected to the rebel side, but Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said Mr Jalali is one of the highest-ranking ­officials to be captured. An ­amateur video posted online by activists appeared to show Mr Jalali and Mr Salman seated on chairs surrounded by a group of rebels.

“We just want to get rid of the regime,” one of the fighters said to the pair.

An activist in the city who gave only his first name, Amir, said the two were ­detained by Jabhat al-Nusra, an ­al-Qaeda-linked group that the US has designated as a terrorist ­organisation.

“They are detained in a location secured by al-Nusra and are being treated well,” he said.

The group has emerged as one of the best organised and most effective forces on the opposition side, leading successful rebel assaults on military installations around the country.

Fighting raged yesterday near an intelligence building in the city as well as at several other places, the Observatory director said, adding that “some of Raqqa is still under regime control”.

The government also ­remained in control of military air bases outside the city and was using them to deploy warplanes to fight back.

Raqqa-based activist Mustafa Othman said the warplanes struck several targets in the city, including former security buildings now under the control of the rebels. He said regime supporters were holed up in two other security buildings – one in the south and the second in the north of the city.

Gunfire could be heard in the background as he spoke via Skype. He insisted Raqqa was completely liberated, but said as long as the regime controls the skies: “I don’t know if I’ll be alive in the next minute.”

Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks, capturing the country’s largest dam west of the city. Anti-Assad fighters stormed Raqqa’s central prison on Sunday, and swept regime forces from much of the provincial capital on Monday. That prompted cheering residents to pour into the main square and tear down a bronze statue of Mr Assad’s late father, Hafez.

The Syrian conflict started two years ago as a popular uprising against Mr Assad’s authoritarian rule, then turned into a civil war after the rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.

The violence has devastated many cities and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrian to seek refuge abroad.

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