Syria rebels seize strategic town as toll hits 40,000
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Press
yrian members of the Committee for Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vice stand guard at their headquarters in al-Bab, northern Syria, on November 21, 2012. AFP photo
Rebels seized the eastern Syria town of Mayadeen on Thursday, the latest in a series of strategic advances, as the number of people killed in the increasingly violent conflict passed the 40,000 mark.
Defeated government troops fled from Mayadeen to a military airport near the main eastern city of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"The area east of the city of Deir Ezzor, on the Iraqi border, is now the largest area in the entire country that is out of army control," said the Observatory's director, Rami Abdel Rahman.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said in an email to AFP that insurgents had captured an important military base on the edge of Mayadeen.
"The FSA took control of an artillery garrison in the outskirts of Mayadeen, after a siege that lasted more than 20 days," said Fahd al-Masri, a spokesman for the FSA.
The oil and gas-rich province of Deir Ezzor is home to Sunni Muslim tribes whose ties extend across the border into Iraq.
"In that area of Syria there are deep tribal loyalties, and fighters in western Iraq help the rebels fight the regime," Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Despite its battlefield losses, most oil and gas fields in the large desert province remain still under regime control, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and medics on the ground.
Syria's rebels have also overrun vast swathes of territory in northern Syria along the Turkish border and control most border crossings into Iraq and Turkey, cutting off key supply lines for the regime.
In mid-October, rebels seized Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town in the northern province of Idlib, as well as a section of highway, thereby reducing the army's ability to resupply its forces locked in battle for months with the FSA in the commercial capital Aleppo.
More recently, rebel fighters last Sunday captured Base 46, a sprawling army base in northern Syria after weeks of intense fighting with regime forces.
As the rebellion grows bolder, the regime is focusing its territorial ambitions on Damascus, central Syria and Alawite bastions, according to analysts.
The regime's goal is to entrench in key positions, fight off further rebel advances and hold out for an opportune time to negotiate, they say.
Elsewhere on Thursday, warplanes carried out several air strikes on the Eastern Ghuta area on the outskirts of Damascus, said the Observatory.
The area is home to some of the rebels' best organised and fiercest groups, and the army has struggled to put down the insurgency there for several months. It is strategic both to rebels and the army because of its proximity to the capital.
Despite repeated failures to put down the insurgency in Damascus province, the regime on Thursday proclaimed that victory was imminent.
"The operation to cleanse Damascus province has entered ... into its final phase," said the Al-Baath newspaper, mouthpiece of the ruling party.
West of Damascus, the army fought rebels in the town of Daraya "for the fourth day in a row," said pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan.
Daraya is populated mainly by opponents of the regime and was the scene of a massacre of more than 500 people late August, according to the Observatory.
Thursday's violence came a day after 122 people were killed across Syria, said the Observatory. Among them were 37 civilians, 39 rebel fighters and 46 soldiers.
The latest toll brought the count of people killed in 20 months of violence to more than 40,000, Abdel Rahman said.
"At least 28,026 civilians, 1,379 defectors, 10,150 soldiers and 574 unidentified people have been killed in Syria in the past 20 months," he said.
The Observatory relies on a network of activists, lawyers and medics at military and civilian hospitals inside Syria for its information.
The uprising began as pro-reform protests inspired by the Arab Spring but transformed into an armed insurgency after the government began brutally crushing demonstrations.
Most rebels, like the population, are Sunni Muslims in a country dominated by a minority regime of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.