BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels pushed government troops from most of the northern city of Raqqa Monday, and then scores of cheering protesters tore up a poster of President Bashar Assad and toppled a bronze statue of his late father and predecessor, activists said.
If the rebels seize control of Raqqa, it would be the first time an entire city falls into the hands of anti-Assad fighters. Rebels hold parts of major Syrian cities such as Aleppo in the north, suburbs of Damascus, the central city of Homs and Deir el-Zour in the east. They also control large areas in the countryside, particularly in the north.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels are now in control of “large parts” of Raqqa, a city on the Euphrates river that flows through Syria into Iraq. A top police officer was killed and intelligence officers were detained, the group said.
Activists declared Raqqa “liberated” on opposition social media websites Monday. A photo posted on several pro-rebel Facebook pages showed people tearing down a huge poster of Assad and hitting it with their shoes. The activists said the picture was taken inside the feared Air Force Intelligence headquarters in Raqqa.
An amateur video showed dozens of people in a large square jumping on the bronze statue of the late Hafez Assad after it was toppled. The video appeared consistent with AP reporting.
Rebels have been advancing in Raqqa province for weeks, capturing the country’s largest dam. On Sunday, anti-Assad fighters stormed the Raqqa central prison.
The rebel gains are a significant blow to Assad, although his forces have regained control of several villages and towns along a key highway near Aleppo International Airport in the past week.
Earlier Monday, rebels launched an offensive to try to seize the military air base of Mannagh near the Turkish border and clashed with government forces at a historic mosque in the nation’s largest city of Aleppo, activists said.
In Saudi Arabia, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal together warned Assad that they will boost support to rebels unless he steps down. They also put the leaders of Iran’s leadership on notice that time was running out for a diplomatic resolution to concerns over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the region’s harshest critics of Assad’s regime. In his discussions with Kerry, Saud said he stressed the importance of enabling the Syrian people to exercise their “legitimate right to defend itself against the regime’s killing machine.” Saud also complained that the Assad regime continues to get weapons from “third parties,” a veiled reference to Russia and Iran, which have backed Assad through the conflict.
Kerry criticized Iran, Hezbollah and Russia by name for giving weapons to Assad’s forces.
Monday’s fighting came as a pro-government newspaper reported that opposition fighters killed 115 police and wounded another 50 in a battle Sunday over a police academy in the north. The daily Al-Watan reported that “terrorists committed a massacre” at the academy near Aleppo.
The report came a day after the Observatory said the rebels seized the academy in Khan al-Asal after entering the sprawling government complex with captured tanks. The Observatory said the battle left at least 120 soldiers and 80 rebels dead.
The Syrian conflict started two years ago as a popular uprising against Assad’s authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown 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 in the fighting.
Assad maintains his troops are fighting “terrorists” and Islamic extremists seeking to destroy Syria, and he accuses the West and its Gulf Arab allies of supporting them.
The Observatory said clashes also were raging inside Aleppo’s landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the walled Old City. The mosque was heavily damaged last year after a fire gutted the city’s famed medieval market.
On Saturday, the Syrian army command said it captured areas in Aleppo opening a road between the government-controlled central city of Hama with Aleppo’s international airport. The airport, the country’s second largest, was subjected to an offensive by rebels for weeks.
The Observatory said rebels on Monday destroyed the Assan bridge near the airport. An amateur video showed rebels blowing up the bridge, creating a thick black of smoke amid chants of “God is great.”
The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.