Syria jets pound city captured by rebels

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 March, 2013, 5:51pm

Syrian fighter jets on Thursday pounded Raqa, a day after rebels took full control of the northern city, a watchdog said, raising concern for the fate of loyalists who surrendered.

The Islamist Al-Nusra Front, which led the rebel assault on Raqa, controlled the building housing the city’s former feared military intelligence branch, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The rebels are believed to be holding the provincial governor, who they had captured, inside the building, which has now become their headquarters, said the Britain-based Observatory.

It said “hundreds” of pro-regime-regime militiamen had surrendered to the rebels, adding that it feared for their fate.

Rights groups have accused regime forces and rebels alike of carrying out atrocities against prisoners.

The rebels fought off the last pockets of regime resistance and seized the intelligence building on Wednesday after overrunning most of Raqa, capital of the province of the same name, two days earlier, according to the Observatory.

In Damascus, Al-Watan daily which is close to the regime acknowledged “several districts” had fallen into rebel hands but not the whole city. Air raids had left behind “the bodies of many terrorists ... sprawled on kerbsides” around Raqa.

“Fighting continues in several districts,” Al-Watan reported, “with a large number of Al-Nusra Front terrorists now entrenched in the city where they have set up checkpoints.”

Small trucks were ferrying in armaments from the Turkish border, it said, referring to regime accusations that the rebels are armed and financed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The government said that its recapture of the city was “only a matter of time.”

The fall of Raqa, near the border with Turkey, marked the rebels’ biggest victory on the ground since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule erupted in March 2011.

Also on Thursday, the army rained shells down on the rebel-held Khaldiyeh district of the central city of Homs, the Observatory said.

The bombardment came a day after the army used helicopters, warplanes and rocket fire to strike Khaldiyeh.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, said Al-Nusra members had blown up two car bombs near army checkpoints leading into Homs on Wednesday in a bid to enter the city.

The United Nations says at least 70,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the uprising in Syria.