BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels attacked a base protecting a military industrial compound in the country’s north on Friday as anti-government forces pushed forward in efforts to capture wider areas near the border with Turkey, an activist group said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven rebels were killed in the attack on the air defense base in the town of al-Safira.
The town is home to a complex of military factories and lies just south of Syria’s largest city and commercial hub, Aleppo.
An activist in the town said the complex contains military factories, a scientific research center that produces chemical weapons as well as an air defense and an artillery base.
Rebels seized the artillery base earlier this week and have been trying to seize the air defense base, said Hussein, who gave only his first name for fear of retribution.
The town’s proximity to the facilities has cost it dearly, he said. Government airstrikes often target civilian areas, and more than two-thirds of the town’s residents have fled, fearing the regime will use chemical weapons.
“We are scared that they will be blown up or that the regime will use them in revenge on the town,” he added.
Bilal Saab, head of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, confirmed that the Al-Safira complex houses a chemical weapons production facility but said it is unclear if such weapons have been stored there ready for use, or if rebels would even be able to use such weapons.
The rebels tried to storm the base but were pushed back, only to later shell some of the military factories, said Observatory’s chief Rami Abdul-Rahman.
The attacks are part of a push by the rebels who have been capturing army bases in and around Aleppo over the past weeks as they gain wider areas near the border with Turkey.
Syria’s conflict started 21 months ago as an uprising against President Bashar Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, more than 40,000 people have been killed since March 2001.
Also Friday, the Observatory and other activists, including the Local Coordination Committees, said rebels launched a wave of attacks on military checkpoints and posts in the central province of Hama.
An amateur video posted online by activists showed rebels tearing down Syrian and Palestinian flags from a checkpoint in the strategic village of Morek, along the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Regime troops usually raise the Palestinian flag on their posts because they believe the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs. The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Abdul-Rahman said the military plants in al-Safira are surrounded by army bases and posts to protect them. He said Friday’s clashes came three days after rebels captured a military warehouse in the area. It was later bombed by Syrian warplanes, killing nearly two dozen rebels, Abdul-Rahman said.
Also Friday, a prominent state-run Syrian TV news anchor told the pan-Arab network Al-Arabiya that he defected after being subjected to several sessions of interrogations by the country’s intelligence services.
Ahmad Fakhouri said he and his colleagues used to read the news as it was given to them and “the anchor had no right to change one word.”
Fakhouri said he quit his job at the TV eight months ago and was able to flee the country with the help of rebels.
“I look forward for the day when Syria will be free and I can return to my country to practice my job,” he said from a secret location outside Syria. Fakhouri would not disclose his whereabouts for fear of government repercussions.
The Associated Press contacted the TV head office in Damascus and was told that Fakhouri left and is now working for state-run radio. An official at the state-run radio said Fakhouri is on vacation.
Syrian authorities usually don’t comment about defections of officials or state employees.
Meanwhile in Damascus, Palestinians who fled their homes in the Yarmouk refugee camp after much of it was captured by rebels continued returning home Friday. The refugees first began going back Thursday, after clashes between the army and the rebels subsided and a deal was reached for opposition forces to withdraw from the camp, the Observatory said.
More than two-thirds of the roughly 150,000 Palestinian residents fled Yarmouk since last week when the fighting flared up, according to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees. They sought shelter in the outskirts of the camp, other parts of Damascus or in other cities, or headed to the Syrian-Lebanon border, UNRWA said.
On Friday, fighting continued in the Damascus neighborhoods of Hajar Aswad and Tadamon, just outside Yarmouk, the Observatory said. It had no immediate words on casualties.
Rebels also attacked army positions in the southern suburbs of the capital, including Mleiha and Chebaa, the group said. The areas are close to the Damascus International Airport and have witnessed heavy clashes over the past weeks.
The Observatory said a bomb struck a checkpoint in the Damascus neighborhood of Dumar late Thursday, wounding several soldiers and pro-government gunmen. It also said that government troops killed seven rebels in clashes in the suburb of Hamouriyeh on Thursday night.
State-run news agency reported that “many gunmen” were killed in the suburb of Daraya, which has been subjected to shelling and attacks by government troops for weeks.
An amateur video posted online showed a multiple rocket launcher firing nine rockets as the narrator said they were being launched toward Daraya.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.