Posts Tagged ‘ White Mist Revolution ’

Rebels seize northwest Syrian town as government retaliates

April 25, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Syrian rebel groups seized a strategic town Saturday in northwestern Syria, sending government troops fleeing after intense clashes that have seen the opposition take nearly all of a crucial province.

The takeover prompted retaliatory government air raids in the town center — as many as 30 airstrikes according to one activist group — that left an unknown number of people killed and wounded. Among those wounded was a TV reporter for an opposition station who entered the town with the rebels.

If they can hold the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, rebel fighters from Islamic factions — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front — will have gained in only a few days a gateway to the Mediterranean coast, a refuge of embattled President Bashar Assad, and cut government supply lines from the coast to northern and central Syria. The town is one of the last bastions of Assad’s government in the area and fighting around it continued Saturday.

The offensive, which rebels have called the “Battle of Victory,” comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition. Opposition television station Orient News aired images inside the town showing rebel fighters milling in the town’s central square, raising their black flag. Meanwhile, fighting continued Saturday in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town, and activists said rebel fighters were gaining new ground.

A Twitter account affiliated with the Nusra Front posted pictures apparently from inside Jisr al-Shoughour Saturday, calling it “liberated.” Other pictures posted on social media showed bodies of government troops piled in the street as rebels sat atop tanks in the town’s center.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the rebels completely controlled Jisr al-Shughour after government troops and allied forces fled south. The group said there were clashes on the outskirts of the town. A video the group posted showed civilians leaving the town accompanied by a number of government troops.

The government conceded its forces had left the town. A military official, quoted by Syrian state media, said government forces redeployed to surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties after fierce battles with “armed terrorist groups” in Jisr al-Shughour.

Later, state TV said government aircraft targeted a convoy of fighters east of the town. But the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group that tracks the conflict, said the air raids were in the town center. The Observatory counted at least 30 raids in the town and its environs. The LCC said at least six raids were in a square in the town’s center. There were no immediate casualty figures.

The Orient News television network, which was airing live coverage of the rebels’ takeover, said one of its reporters was injured and its broadcast vehicle destroyed in one of the raids. The reporter, Ammar Dandash, emotionally told the broadcaster that he was returning to Jisr al-Shughour, his hometown, for the first time in years with the rebels. “Today I return to my home after four years of being deprived of it,” he said, before he was injured.

Asaad Kanjo, an activist in touch with residents of the town, said most civilians had stayed indoors, fearing government retaliation. The Observatory said members of a government security agency also killed 23 detainees before they withdrew. Pictures shared on social media by the Nusra Front showed bodies of civilians piled in what they said was a local prison, near a hospital where fighters had earlier said government troops were taking cover.

Government fighters had reportedly also carried out a similar mass killing before withdrawing from Idlib city last month. The fight for Jisr al-Shughour began Wednesday and activists have said thousands of fighters took part in the offensive, which first targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside of town.

The town of Jisr al-Shughour was one of the first towns to rise against Assad’s regime, but has largely remained under government control despite briefly falling to the rebels in early 2011. The government accused the rebels there of killing over 100 soldiers, a charge they denied.

Activists say the fall of the town is of also of symbolic significance because a military camp on the town’s outskirts had been used to target much of Idlib’s countryside, leading to many casualties. The Nusra Front and Syrian rebels have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012. After the fall of Idlib, the government moved its offices and staff to Jisr al-Shughour.

Assad has blamed Turkey for the fall of Idlib to Islamic fighters, saying Ankara provided “huge support” — logistical and military — that played the key role in the defeat of his forces. Syria’s civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed some 220,000 people, and wounded at least 1 million. At least 4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly double that figure are displaced inside Syria because of the conflict.

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Islamic fighters led by al-Qaida in Syria seize major city

March 28, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Islamic fighters led by al-Qaida’s branch in Syria seized almost full control of the northwestern city of Idlib on Saturday, taking over major roundabouts and government buildings in a powerful blow to President Bashar Assad whose forces rapidly collapsed after four days of heavy fighting, opposition activists and the extremist group said.

Idlib, a major urban center with a population of around 165,000 people, is the second provincial capital to fall into opposition hands after Raqqa, now a stronghold of the Islamic State group. Its capture by the Nusra Front underscores the growing power of extremist groups in Syria who now control about half the country.

Opposition fighters including Nusra have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012, but Assad’s forces have managed to maintain their grip on Idlib city, near the border with Turkey, throughout the conflict.

On Saturday, Islamic fighters jubilantly swept in, taking over key buildings and tearing down posters of Assad. Videos posted online by activists and the Nusra Front showed a group of heavily armed fighters kneeling down in prayer in the city’s sprawling Hanana square as others fired their guns in celebration.

“Allahu Akbar!” — God is great — they shouted. The fighters then took down a Syrian flag flying in the center of the square and set it on fire to the backdrop of incessant shooting. The video appeared genuine and consistent with AP reporting on Idlib’s takeover Saturday.

On its Twitter account, Nusra posted pictures of the Clock Tower and other landmark locations now under its control. The Nusra Front is leading a group of ultra-conservative rebels in a major offensive that began earlier this week to take Idlib. They include the hardline Ahrar al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa groups and a few smaller groups loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

With the takeover of Idlib, an island of government territory in the midst of mostly opposition terrain, the Nusra Front further cements its hold over an impressive stretch of land it controls from the Turkish border to central and southern Syria.

With the world’s attention focused on the Islamic State group, the Nusra Front has quietly consolidated its power in Syria in recent months, crushing moderate rebel groups the West may try to work with while increasingly enforcing its own brutal version of Islamic law.

Idlib, besides being a major population city, is located near the main highway linking the capital Damascus with Aleppo. The main Western-backed Syrian National Coalition opposition group said the wresting of Idlib from government control is an “important victory on the road to the full liberation of Syrian soil from the Assad regime and its allies.” However, it said more “decisive” assistance to Syrian rebels was needed for that to happen.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel fighters seized control of Idlib in a push Friday evening and early Saturday after rapidly collapsing government forces withdrew. The group, which relies on an extensive network of activists across Syria, said some fighting continued Saturday amid heavy artillery shelling from both sides. The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition activist collective in Syria, also reported the “almost complete” capture of Idlib by rebels.

An unnamed Syrian military official quoted by state-run news agency SANA said army forces were fighting “fierce battles” against “armed terrorist groups” to regain control in Idlib. The government claimed earlier this week that “thousands of terrorists” streamed in from Turkey to attack Idlib and its suburbs. Turkey is one of the main backers of the rebels.

The humiliating losses in Idlib mark the second blow to government forces this week, after rebels, also led by Nusra, captured the ancient and strategic town of Busra Sham in southern Syria. Also Saturday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was angry and shamed by the failure of the world to stop Syria’s raging civil war. He promised to step up diplomatic efforts in comments at a summit of Arab leaders in the Red Sea resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which began with popular protests amid Arab Spring uprisings in March 2011 and turned into an insurgency following a brutal military crackdown.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Hamza Hendawi in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt contributed to this report.

Syrian rebels regain ground lost near Aleppo

February 18, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Wednesday regained much of the territory north of the city of Aleppo lost to government troops in fierce fighting the previous day in ongoing clashes that left more than 100 dead on both sides, activists said.

The violence came as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said he received a government commitment to suspend airstrikes on the city of Aleppo for six weeks, which would allow a proposed U.N. plan to “freeze” hostilities in the country’s largest city to be tested.

De Mistura briefed the Security Council late Tuesday on his efforts to find a solution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 220,000 people. The envoy said he will return to Syria “as soon as possible” to assess whether the government’s commitment is possible and to announce a start date.

An activist in Aleppo said most rebel factions will abide by a truce if the government stops airstrikes and release detainees, starting with female prisoners. Ahmad Hamed said via Skype that the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which has a small presence in the city, is not expected to abide by the plan.

The Islamic State group is about 30 kilometers northeast of the city. “The most important thing for the opposition is a cease in the (government’s) barrel bombs campaign in Aleppo,” Hamed said, referring to large canisters packed with explosives and metal scraps that the Syrian army drops regularly from the air, causing widespread damage and casualties.

Another activist in Aleppo, Bahaa Halaby, said Syrian troops were trying to besiege rebel-held areas before any freeze goes into effect. “The regime wants to implement the initiative after advancing on the ground,” Halaby said via Skype. “The regime says it wants dialogue then attacks rebel positions.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based activist Bari Abdellatif said rebels regained control of the villages of Ratyan and Dweir Zeytoun early Wednesday. The Observatory says 70 troops and 86 rebels were killed in Tuesday’s fighting.

The Observatory and Hamed, the activist, said fighting is now concentrated in the village of Bashkoy, just north of Aleppo.

Syria rebels advance towards Hama military airport

2014-07-29

BEIRUT – Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday.

“The rebels are now nine kilometers (six miles) away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action,” said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

A rebel leader in the area, who gave his name as Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because “that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on (opposition-held) areas across Syria”.

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels and their Al-Qaeda ally, the Al-Nusra Front, took over a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under regime control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint at Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday’s capture of a weapons depot in the area.

“The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days,” said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements.

“They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime’s capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo”, said the rebel commander.

As for the military airport: “We are already striking it with Grad missiles”, said Hassan.

The air force has used deadly barrel bombs, which are being manufactured in Hama military airport, to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for many months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes including barrel bomb attacks have since December killed hundreds of civilians including children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

Syria’s war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee their homes.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=67356.

Report: Jihadi group captures Syrian border town

July 01, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — The al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured a key Syrian town near the Iraq border from other rebels on Tuesday and advanced toward a stronghold of its main jihadi rivals, an activist group said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Boukamal fell to the militants early Tuesday following days of battles between the group and other factions led by the Nusra Front, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.

Activists in the area could not immediately be reached and calls to Boukamal and nearby areas were not going through. The Observatory, which has a network of activists around Syria, said the Islamic State brought in reinforcements from Iraq during the fighting.

The latest victory by the jihadi group, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, came two days after it declared the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate. The group says its Islamic state stretches from northern Syria to the Iraqi province of Diyala northeast of Baghdad, and has called on all Muslims worldwide to pledge allegiance to it.

The Observatory said the Islamic State released more than 100 detainees it was holding in the northern Syrian town of Al-Bab after the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued an amnesty on the occasion of establishing the self-styled caliphate.

Last week, beleaguered Nusra Front fighters defected and joined the Islamic State in Boukamal —effectively handing over the town to the powerful group, which controls the Iraqi side of the crossing. The Observatory said the Islamic State is advancing toward the town of Shuheil, northwest of Boukamal, a Nusra Front stronghold believed to be the hometown of its leader, a Syrian known as Abu Muhammed al-Golani.

Up to 7,000 people, the majority of them fighters, have been killed in the rebel-on-rebel violence across the opposition-held territory in northern and eastern Syria since January, according to the Observatory’s tally, which is compiled by its activists on the ground.

Rebels evacuating strongholds in Syria’s Homs

May 07, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Exhausted and worn out from a year-long siege, hundreds of Syrian rebels on Wednesday left their last remaining bastions in the heart of the central city of Homs under a ceasefire deal with government forces, opposition activists and the city’s governor said.

The exit of some 1,200 fighters and civilians will mark a de-facto end of the rebellion in the battered city, which was one of the first places to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s rule, earning its nickname as “the capital of the revolution.”

Gaining full control of Syria’s third largest city is a major win for Assad on multiple levels. Militarily, it solidifies the government hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital Damascus with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory further north. Politically, gains on the ground boost Assad’s hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in presidential elections set for June 3.

By early afternoon Wednesday, over 400 fighters had boarded several batches of buses that departed from a police command center on the edge of Homs’ rebel-held areas, heading north, opposition activists said. Many of the rebels were wounded, and it was unclear how many civilians were among them.

An activist who goes by the name of Abu Yassin al-Homsi said all fighters and any remaining civilians would leave the city before the end of the day. According to the deal, the rebels were being taken a few kilometers (miles) north to the rebel held towns of Talbiseh and al-Dar al-Kabira on the northern edge of Homs province — a short drive away.

Al-Homsi said each fighter was allowed to carry his rifle and a bag of belongings with him. One rocket propelled grenade launcher and a machinegun were also allowed on each bus in line with the agreement, he said.

“We are very sad for what is happening today. We kept urging the international community to lift the siege but there was no response,” al-Homsi said. “We have lost more than 2,000 martyrs in nearly two years of siege.”

The evacuation appeared to be taking place in an organized manner with no violations by either side. Homs governor Talal Barazi confirmed that the rebels started leaving the old districts. State TV said government forces would enter the evacuated neighborhoods once rebels leave entirely.

The rebels will retain one toe-hold in Homs. Fighters in the Waer district, just outside Homs’ Old City, have so far refused to join the evacuation. Some activists said negotiations were underway for a similar deal there.

The evacuation was a bitter moment for the exhausted rebels, who had pledged to fight to the end in 13 neighborhoods in and around the historic quarters of Homs where they had been holed up under siege for more than a year. Some fighters had said they would rather die than give up the city.

The rebels include hardcore fighters from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front group and other Islamic factions. Homs, with a prewar population of 1.2 million was among the first to rise up against Assad in early 2011 with waves of exuberant anti-Assad protests. As Syria’s conflict turned into outright civil war, rebels took control of nearly 70 percent of the city, whose population represents Syria’s mix — with a largely pro-rebel Sunni majority and a pro-Assad Alawite minority, along with Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities.

The city quickly came under a series of crushing government offensives, turning into a battleground that left entire blocks and much of its historic quarters in ruins. Thousands of people were killed and almost all its residents fled. Tit-for-tat sectarian killings rose, reflecting the increasingly religious dimension of the conflict nationwide.

Rebels were slowly pushed back. For well over a year, government forces have been besieging rebels in around a dozen districts around its ancient bazaars. The siege caused severe shortages in food and medicine, and heavy bombardment blasted the rebel-held areas. A first major group — around 1,400 people, including fighters and residents — evacuated earlier this year in a U.N.-mediated operation.

The last die-hards held out for weeks. But they agreed Friday to the cease-fire deal, leading the way to evacuation. In videos of Wednesday’s evacuation posted online by activists, two green public buses carrying rebels drive along a dusty, battered road past shattered, bombed-out buildings, their upper floors collapsed.

In one video, fighters with bags of belongings, some with their faces covered, board a bus as men in black uniforms labeled police oversee the process. At least one U.N.-marked vehicle was parked nearby. The videos appeared genuine and matched the AP’s reporting on the evacuation.

While the agreement represents a demoralizing admission of defeat by opposition forces, it can also be seen as a face-saving deal for both sides. Weakened rebels, for whom Homs’ collapse was only a matter of time, get a safe exit, while the government saves manpower and weapons and claim it was able to retake the last rebel bastions without spilling more blood.

In exchange for their evacuation, activists say opposition fighters will allow aid into two northern pro-government villages, Nubul and Zahra, besieged by the rebels for more than a year. Director of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said roads to Nubul and Zahra in northern Syria were opened and aid arrived on the edge of the villages Wednesday as the evacuations from Homs were underway.

Also as part of the Homs deal, rebels would also release up to 70 pro-government gunmen and an Iranian woman they hold captive in the northern city of Aleppo, several activists said. It was not immediately clear whether they had been released. Abdurrahman said that among those released by the rebels was a group of people captured in the coastal province of Latakia, a government stronghold, where opposition fighters seized dozens of women and children in an offensive in August.

He said rebels also released 15 soldiers they were holding in Aleppo province.

Syrian rebels capture town near Turkish border

March 24, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Islamic rebels captured a small town in northwestern Syria near the Turkish border as part of their offensive in the rugged coastal region that is a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, activists said Monday.

Fighters from an array of armed opposition groups seized the predominantly Armenian Christian town of Kassab on Sunday. The rebels, including militant from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, have also wrested control of a nearby border crossing to Turkey.

The advances, while minor in terms of territory, provided a boost to a beleaguered rebellion that has suffered a string of battlefield losses in recent weeks. Forces loyal to Assad have captured several towns near Syria’s border with Lebanon as part of a government drive to sever rebel supply lines across the porous frontier.

Rebels launched their offensive on Friday in Latakia province, which is the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect, the Shiite offshoot community that is a main pillar of support for his rule. Since then, the fighting has focused around Kassab and the nearby border crossing.

A member of the president’s family who was also an army commander was buried in Latakia on Monday a day after he died in the battle for Kassab, the Syrian state news agency SANA said. Hilal Assad was the commander of the pro-government National Defense Forces.

Rebels were in control of the center of Kassab on Monday but clashes were raging in the hills outside of town, said Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Government warplanes were conducting airstrikes on several positions in the area, including Nabeh al-Murr and the scattering of homes and fields surrounding Kassab, the Observatory said. There was no immediate word on casualties.

A Syrian state reporter speaking on TV from outside Kassab Monday said the government had captured several Nusra Front fighters, and that the army is determined to take back the ground it has ceded. A pillar of white smoke could be seen rising above the green, forested hills behind the reporter.

In an amateur video posted online, two opposition fighters stand on a rooftop in Kassab and raise their arms in celebration. A checkpoint near the post office, replete with sandbags and oil drums painted like the Syrian flag, sits abandoned. The streets are deserted. The camera pans past the base of a smashed statue that the narrator says was of Assad’s late father and Syria’s former leader, Hafez.

The video appears genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting. Damascus claims the rebels entered Syria from Turkey, and has accused Ankara of pursuing “aggressive policies” toward Syria. On Sunday, Turkey’s military said it shot down a Syrian MiG-23 after it entered Turkey’s airspace. Syria says the jet was flying over Syrian territory when it was hit.

Turkey, a NATO member, is one of the main backers of the 3-year-old rebellion against Assad. Ankara allows rebels to use Turkish territory as a logistical and support base, and weapons and fighters move fairly freely across the border into opposition-held parts of northern Syria.

The ongoing rebel offensive in Latakia is not the opposition’s first significant incursion in the province. Last August, a mix of moderate and extremist rebel brigades captured around a dozen villages in the Latakia mountains, before a government counteroffensive expelled them.

Afterward, Human Rights Watch said nearly 200 civilians, including children, the elderly and the disabled, were killed in the attack. It said rebel abuses during the operation amounted to war crimes. Now in its fourth year, Syria’s conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, forced more than 2 million people to seek refuge abroad, and triggered a massive humanitarian crisis across the region.

The U.N. Security Council last month demanded immediate access everywhere in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in need. It also called for an end to sieges of populated areas, and a halt to all attacks against civilians, including indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks using barrel bombs in populated areas.

In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said the Assad government has continued its sweeping aerial campaign against opposition-held areas of the divided city of Aleppo in defiance of the U.N. resolution.

“New satellite photos and witness accounts show the brutality unleashed on parts of Aleppo,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for the New York-based group. “Use of barrel bombs in residential neighborhoods has done the expected: killed hundreds of civilians and driven thousands from their homes.”

Barrel bombs are makeshift devices packed with hundreds of kilograms (pounds) of explosives as well as scraps of metal. Pushed out of the back of helicopters, the crude weapons cause massive damage on impact.

The right group’s report said it used satellite imagery to identify at least 340 places in rebel-controlled areas of Aleppo that were damaged between early November and Feb. 20. The majority of the sites bore signatures of damage consistent with barrel bombs, it said.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Syria, including on the purchase or servicing of helicopters. It said such a measure would limit the government’s ability to carry out airstrikes.

Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report.

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