BEIRUT – Syrian jets bombed opposition-held buildings Tuesday in the strategic northern city of Raqqa, a day after rebels overran the onetime regime stronghold and captured its provincial governor. A toppled statue of President Bashar Assad’s father was defaced with graffiti reading, “Tomorrow will be better.”
The rebels continued to battle pockets of government troops in Raqqa, struggling to crush the remaining resistance in the city of 500,000 people on the Euphrates River.
If successful, it would be the first major city they would completely control in the civil war, and it would consolidate their recent gains in the northern Syrian towns along the historic river that runs from Turkey to Iraq.
“This is the beginning, and other Syrian cities will soon fall, one by one God willing,” said Mustafa Othman, a Raqqa-based activist who spoke via Skype, with the sounds of gunfire crackling in the background.
But government airstrikes and intermittent clashes, particularly around two security buildings, raised doubt about whether the rebels would be able to maintain their hold on Raqqa, about 120 miles (195 kilometres) east of the commercial capital of Aleppo.
Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks. Last month, they captured the country’s largest dam west of the city and this week, they stormed its central prison.
On Monday, they swept regime forces from much of the provincial capital, prompting residents to pour into the main square and tear down a large bronze statue of Assad’s late father and predecessor, Hafez.
Images of cheering rebels and residents bringing down the statue after tying a rope around its neck were reminiscent of the toppling of the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam’s Hussein in 2003 after U.S. troops stormed Baghdad, signalling the symbolic collapse of his regime.
The Syrians beat the felled statue of Hafez Assad with their shoes in a sign of disrespect, and at least one person hit it repeatedly with a hatchet. Others tore down a huge portrait of the current president.
In one photo from Raqqa, a man sat on the toppled statue which had been spray-painted with the Arabic phrase, “Tomorrow will be better.”
It was a striking scene in a city once considered so loyal to the regime that in November 2011 — early in the 2-year-old uprising — Assad prayed at Raqqa’s al-Nour mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid in an apparent attempt to show that the regime was fully in control there.
Some activists posted the images of the fallen statue on Facebook and Twitter along with the words “Made in Syria,” a reference to home-grown nature of the rebellion.
Activists said opposition fighters captured the governor of Raqqa province, Hassan Jalali, after clashes overnight near his office. The head of Assad’s ruling Baath Party in the province, Salman al-Salman, also was in rebel custody.
Several key regime figures have defected to the rebels, but Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Jalali is the highest-ranking officials to be captured.
An amateur video posted online by activists from Raqqa appeared to show Jalali and Salman seated on chairs surrounded by a group of rebels.
“We just want to get rid of the regime,” one of the fighters tells the pair in the video, which appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting from Raqqa.
According to the state-run news agency SANA, the 62-year-old Jalali was appointed Raqqa governor in September 2012.
An activist in the city who gave only his first name Amir for fear of retribution said the two were detained by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, as well as other fighters who entered the city Monday.
“They are detained in a location secured by al-Nusra and are being treated well,” the activist said.
The group has emerged as one of the best organized and most effective forces on the opposition side, leading successful rebel assaults on military installations.
Fighting raged Tuesday near at least two government buildings, including the military intelligence and state security headquarters, the symbols of Assad’s authoritarian rule in Syria.
The Observatory’s Abdul-Rahman said “some of Raqqa is still under regime control.”
Othman insisted Raqqa was completely liberated, but noted that the regime controlled the skies above the city, adding: “I don’t know if I’ll be alive in the next minute.”
The government also remained in control of air bases outside the city, including Tabqa to the west, from which they launched warplanes to try to dislodge the rebels.
Several airstrikes caused an unspecified number of casualties, the Observatory said, adding that there also was heavy fighting near an ammunition depot on the northern edge of the city.
Abdul-Rahman said there were reports of more than 100 people killed in the past two days, but the casualty toll could not be independently confirmed.
Activists said 16 people were killed Tuesday in Raqqa, including 10 fighters who died in clashes with troops.
A Syrian government official in Damascus told the AP that the Syrian army raided “terrorist groupings” in Raqqa, causing many casualties. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Activists also reports that the regime was sending tanks and large numbers of ground troops to retake the city.
Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 with protests of Assad’s authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
The relentless violence also has devastated many cities and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.
The bloodshed has also has spilled over into neighbouring countries several times, fanning fears of a regional conflict. On Monday, 48 Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq to seek refuge from the rebels were killed when they were ambushed by gunmen, heightening concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria’s crisis.
Two senior Iraqi officials, one military and the other in the intelligence services, said Tuesday that a team is investigating the attack in Iraq’s western Anbar province. They said there is a military operation under way to hunt for the attackers.
A total of 13 Iraqi soldiers also were killed in the attack, including four who died in the hospital, the two officials said.
The bodies of the Syrians are still in Anbar province. Iraq’s Defence Ministry has asked the Red Cross for help in repatriating them, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with reporters.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry said its border troops repelled attempts by a group of gunmen trying to cross from Syria into Anbar province. A rocket launcher and a rifle were sized by the Iraqis in the operation, the ministry said Tuesday. It did not say if the gunmen were killed or captured.
In the Syrian capital, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad handed over to the Russian ambassador a man he said was a German journalist, identified as Billy Six, who had been detained after entering the country illegally. Mekdad did not say how Six ended up in regime hands.
Six appears to have been working for a German conservative weekly publication, Junge Freiheit, which posted numerous articles written by Six in Syria until late November.
The German Foreign Ministry confirmed that a German national missing for months was now at its embassy in Beirut.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.