December 16, 2012

Syrian Islamist rebels take Aleppo infantry base

Forces fighting to topple President Bashar Assad advance on the country's largest city.

By BARBARA SURK/The Associated Press

BEIRUT — An Islamist faction of Syrian rebels captured an infantry base in the northern city of Aleppo, its fighters said Sunday, as forces fighting to topple President Bashar Assad advanced on the country's largest city.

click image to enlarge

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover Saturday during heavy clashes with government forces at an infantry base besieged by the rebels north of Aleppo. Free Syrian Army fighters took control over the military academy after battling government forces for several hours.

The Associated Press

Also Sunday, Syrian warplanes blasted a Palestinian refugee camp near Damascus, killing eight people and wounding dozens, activists said. Some Palestinian groups in the Yarmouk camp have been backing Assad's regime.

The base was the second major army installation taken by rebels in a week in Aleppo. Its fall is the latest blow to the Assad regime.

Last week more than 100 nations, including the U.S., recognized the new Syrian opposition council as the legitimate representative of the country, a boost for the opposition forces that have been bombing regime targets in and around Damascus, once an impregnable stronghold of the Assad regime.

A statement by the al-Tawheed Brigade said the rebels "fully liberated" the military facility in Aleppo on Saturday. It was posted on al-Tawheed's official website Sunday and said the Islamist rebel brigade's commander was killed in the battle.

The complex, known as Hanano Barracks, includes an army base, a recruiting center and a military school.

The Al-Tawheed Brigade is one of the largest rebel groups operating in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, which has been a major front in the civil war since July.

One of the videos posted on the group's website shows the body of a man the narrator says is "the hero and martyr who was killed on the day of liberating the infantry school," apparently the Al-Tawheed commander, Col. Youssef al-Jader. A boy said to be the commander's son is seen crying as he leans over the dead man.

Another video shows several rebels praying at the captured base. Armed fighters are also seen walking around the infantry school with slogans "Assad Forever" and pictures of Assad and his late father, Hafez, hanging on the walls.

The Assad family has ruled Syria with an iron fist for more than 40 years.

In a related development, Egypt said Sunday that it has evacuated more than 4,000 of its nationals from Syria over the past few months. The Cairo Foreign Ministry statement did not give further details. Egypt's national airline halted flights to and from Syria last month because of the deteriorating security situation.

Also Sunday, Iran put forward a six-point plan to end the Syria civil war, including negotiations, presidential elections and a halt to arms shipments. This came during a two-day meeting of 200 representatives of Syrian communities, but no prominent rebels. The rebels are unlikely to relate to the plan, as they refuse to talk to Assad and consider Iran unqualified to mediate because of its support of the regime.

The uprising started in March 2011 as peaceful protests but quickly turned into a civil war after the government's brutal crackdown on dissent.

Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed in almost 21 months of conflict that has increasingly sectarian overtones.

The opposition fighters mostly come from Syria's majority Sunni Muslim community. Assad's regime is dominated by members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

On Sunday, fighter jets screamed over Damascus to bomb two areas in the southern part of the capital.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets carried out six airstrikes the Hajar Aswad area and the neighboring Yarmouk Palestinian camp, where the rebels have been advancing.

Eight people were killed in the airstrike on Yarmouk, the Observatory said, and dozens were wounded. At least three people were killed in the clashes between rebels and gunmen loyal to Assad that followed the air strike, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the Observatory's president.

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