Beirut, March 4: Syrian rebel fighters seized much of the contested north-central city of Raqqa today after days of heavy clashes with government forces, smashing a statue of President Bashar al-Assad’s father in the central square and occupying the governor’s palace, according to activist groups and videos uploaded to the Internet.
If the insurgents manage to gain and retain control of Raqqa, capital of Raqqa province, it would signify a potentially important turn in the two-year-old Syrian conflict. Raqqa, a strategic city on the Euphrates river, would be the first provincial capital completely taken over by the armed resistance to President Assad.
For the government, the loss of Raqqa would diminish the prospects that Assad’s military, now fighting on a number of fronts, could retake a vast swathe of northern and eastern Syria from the rebels.
The Raqqa news coincided with reports from Iraq that at least 40 Syrian soldiers who had taken temporary refuge from rebels on the Iraqi side of the border yesterday were killed today as the Iraqi military was transporting them back into Syria on a bus.
Iraqi officials said the bus was damaged by bombs and that unidentified gunmen killed most of the occupants.
Rebel videos posted on YouTube about the Raqqa takeover included the destruction of a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former President and father of Bashar, whose family’s four-decade-old control of the country is now threatened by the insurgency.