AMMAN: Rebels attacked a Syrian army base near the main northern highway on Thursday to try to consolidate their control over the supply line to Aleppo, days after capturing a strategic town in the area, opposition activists said.
Blown-up buildings, deserted streets and corpses of regime soldiers bear testimony to a fierce 48-hour battle before the town of Maaret Al Numan fell to Syrian rebels.
The rebels said that almost 300 people were killed in the three days of fighting in Maaret Al Numan, including 55 civilians, 46 rebel fighters and 190 Syrian army soldiers.
The capture of Maaret Al Numan on Wednesday was a major breakthrough for the rebels fighting President Bashar Al Assad’s forces, especially after they cut off the highway linking Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.
Rebels say the fight to capture Maaret Al Numan began on Monday afternoon when the local military council attacked eight army checkpoints in the eastern part of this strategic town, which in normal times has a population of around 125,000.
Within 48 hours the rebels captured the checkpoints located at crossroads of the town, including a former prison and cultural centre, said Firaz Abdel Hadi, a rebel media official.
Sixteen rebels were killed by a landmine when they entered the cultural centre after it had been abandoned by members of the regime’s military intelligence when it came under attack.
In the basement lay the bodies of around 65 prisoners who the rebels say were executed by their captors minutes before fleeing.
Most of the victims are suspected to have been supporters of the anti-regime uprising or soldiers suspected of trying to defect, said a survivor who was miraculously saved after two bodies fell on him.
The walls of the building are riddled with bullets and stained with blood — witness to the massacre as soldiers fled.
Thirty soldiers managed to escape wearing civilian clothes as the rebels advanced.
“Two RPGs were enough to send 50 soldiers fleeing,” boasted Abdel Hadi, laughing.
By Wednesday all loyalist positions in the town finally fell to rebels as Assad’s troops took refuge in two military camps on the outskirts of Maaret Al Numan, at Wadi Deif and Hamdiyeh.
Rebels used at least one tank seized from the army, as well as rocket-propelled grenades and mortar bombs, to hit the Wadi Al Deif base, three kilometres east of the town of Maarat Al Nuaman, they said.
“The rebels have been attacking Wadi Al Deif since overnight but the army is still shelling Maarat Al Nuaman from it. The city continues to also be hit by warplanes,” said Mohammad Kanaan, an opposition activist in the area.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
At least 30 rebels and dozens of loyalist forces were killed on Wednesday in a battle south of Maarat Al Nuaman, where opposition sources said rebels had halted a Syrian army push to retake the town, which is situated on the main highway to Turkey, 280 kilometres north of Damascus.
The centre of the town, located between the desert and the mountains, boasts fortress-like security and intelligence compounds.
Opposition sources said the fall of Maarat Al Nuaman has weakened the army’s supply lines to Aleppo, Syria’s business hub where urban warfare has been raging for two months.
Syrian troops tried during the night to retake Maaret Al Numan but failed, rebel commander Akram Sale told AFP.
Meanwhile, Syrian state television reported that gunmen attacked a bus transporting Syrian workers at the Lebanon border on Thursday, killing eight passengers and wounding another eight.
“An armed terrorist group attacked at dawn a bus carrying Syrian workers from Lebanon a few minutes after it crossed the Arida border post into Syrian territory,” the report said.
One of the wounded men, quoted by state news agency SANA, said, “around 2:00 am two cars stopped our bus after it passed through the Arida border crossing and drove us to a farm.
The regime uses the term “armed terrorists” for rebels ranged against Assad in Syria’s civil war.