Syrian opposition fighters have captured the northeastern city of Raqqa, where crowds toppled a statue of President Bashar al-Assad’s father, according to residents and opposition sources.
The fall of Raqqa on the Euphrates River would be a significant development in the two-year-old revolt against Assad as the rebels do not claim to hold any other provincial capitals.
Rebel fighters said loyalist forces were, however, still dug in at the provincial airport 40 miles from Raqqa and they remained a threat. A resident said that a Syrian military intelligence compound in the town was not yet in rebel hands but was surrounded by anti-Assad fighters.
A victory could be a new danger for thousands of families which have settled in Raqqa – now known as the “hotel” of the country – having fled conflict elsewhere.
Some residents of the northeastern city, home to half a million people, had pleaded with rebels not to enter Raqqa, fearing that Assad’s war planes, artillery and missiles could target residential areas.
“The fear now is that the regime will hit Scud missiles indiscriminately at Raqqa to punish the population,” said Nawaf al-Ali, from the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella of the main opposition groups.
Video footage taken by opposition activists showed youths climbing on the Hafez al-Assad statue in Raqqa’s central square and tying a rope around its head. “A crowd of hundreds braved the fighting and marched on the main square and took down the statue,” said one of the residents, himself a refugee from the city of Deir al-Zor.
One video showed rebels guarding the city’s museum, housed in a French colonial era palace, which, along with the city’s horseshoe shaped wall, give a glimpse of Raqqa’s past.
Raqqa, founded by Alexander the Great, once acted as a Byzantine frontline against Persia. It was designated by Al-Mansour, the founder of the Abbasid empire, as the second Arab capital after Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the civil war burst into neighbouring Iraq yesterday, with officials reporting that gunmen had killed at least 40 Syrian soldiers and government employees as they headed home after fleeing a Syrian rebel advance last week.
Around 65 Syrian soldiers and officials had handed themselves over to Iraqi authorities on Friday after rebels seized the Syrian side of the border crossing at the Syrian frontier town of Yaarabiya.
Iraqi authorities were taking them to another border crossing further south in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim stronghold, Anbar province, when gunmen ambushed their convoy, a senior Iraqi official told Reuters.