Syrian troops battle rebels near Iraq border

BAGHDAD Wed Aug 22, 2012 8:26am EDT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Syrian government forces fought rebels on Wednesday for control of a military base and an airfield near the eastern town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, a local Iraqi official and a Syrian rebel commander said.

"There is fierce fighting between the Free Syrian Army and Syrian border guards to control the base, where tanks and artillery were used to bombard (Albu Kamal)," Farhan Ftiakhan, mayor of the nearby Iraqi town of Qaim, told Reuters.

"Most Albu Kamal areas are in the hands of the Free Syrian Army, but the Syrian regular army is deployed and controlling the areas just outside Albu Kamal," he said by telephone.

Insurgents fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have made gains in Albu Kamal in the past week.

A rebel commander said they now controlled the town, which sits on a supply route from Iraq, where many Sunni tribes sympathies with their Syrian kin fighting Assad's forces.

The commander, known as Abu Khalid, told Reuters by satellite telephone that the Syrian army now only held the military base and the area around it.

Opposition sources said on Tuesday Syrian state forces had abandoned two security compounds in Albu Kamal that had been run by the Airforce Intelligence and Political Security agencies.

Albu Kamal lies 120 km (75 miles) southeast of the city of Deir al-Zor, capital of a Sunni province with strong family and clan connections to Iraq's Sunni heartland in Anbar province.

Longstanding alliances between Syria's Alawite-dominated ruling elite and Sunni tribes in Deir al-Zor began collapsing after Assad cracked down in the oil-producing region as part of efforts to crush a 17-month-old revolt.

(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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