Syria rebels take Turkish border town, Kurds alarmed

AMMAN Fri Nov 9, 2012 10:07am EST

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Free Syrian Army fighters captured a town on the Turkish border on Thursday in a push to seize control of frontier areas from President Bashar al-Assad's forces, a rebel commander and opposition sources said.

Ten people were killed in clashes as rebels took Ras al-Ain, an Arab and Kurd town in the northeastern oil-producing province of Hasaka, 600 km (375 miles) from Damascus, the sources said.

"The crossing is important because it opens another line to Turkey, where we can send the wounded and get supplies," said Khaled al-Walid, a commander in the Raqqa Rebel Division, based in a neighboring province.

The report could not be independently confirmed.

Speaking by phone from Ras al-Ain, Walid said the rebels controlled a wide area along the Turkish border, 80 kms (50 miles) deep, including a road from the contested city of Aleppo to Hasaka.

In the last three months, the mainly Arab Sunni rebels have captured several outposts on the 800-km (500-mile) border, steadily moving toward the northeast, home to a large proportion of Syria's one-million-strong Kurdish minority.

The Kurdish Council, a coalition of Kurdish parties opposed to Assad, called on the Free Syrian Army to leave Ras al-Ain, saying the clashes, as well as fear of Syrian army bombardment, had prompted most of the town's 50,000 inhabitants to flee.

"While the Kurdish Council affirms it is part of the revolution to bring down this totalitarian regime, the province of Hasaka must remain a safe area for thousands of refugees who had fled to it from other regions," the statement said.

"Military elements have to pull out so their presence would not serve as an excuse to shell the town and destroy it. We affirm the need to coordinate between the opposition groups about safe areas and the need to preserve civic peace in them."

Mohammad Ismail, a senior member of the Kurdish Democratic Party, said most of the rebels who have entered Ras al-Ain were Jihadists, a recipe for tension in the ethnically mixed area, inhabited by mostly centrist Muslims and Christians.

Ismail said the rebels were able to make gains near the border because Assad would think twice before bombarding using warplanes against them in areas so close to Turkey, as opposed to interior regions where devastating air strikes on cities and towns have been blunting rebel advances.

"The rebels' objective seems to be to take outposts that could help them logistically and help an alternative government to Assad to operate from Syria territory," Ismail said.

"They have now arrived in an area that is religiously and ethnically mixed and rich in oil. Creating instability in it is in no one's interest," he added.

Hasaka has seen peaceful protests against Assad, but the Kurdish community has largely stayed away from the armed revolt, which has killed many thousands.

SYRIAN BRANCH OF PKK STRENGTHENED

Demise of central authority has strengthened the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), whom Assad had persecuted prior to the revolt, when he had good ties with Turkey, which is fighting a low intensity war against separatist PKK guerrillas.

Kurdish activists say the PKK has now largely become a ally of the Assad, and is suspected of carrying out a string of recent assassinations and kidnappings of Kurdish politicians opposed to the Syrian president. Dozens of people were killed in clashes between the PKK and rebels in Aleppo last month.

Massoud Akko, a prominent Kurdish human rights campaigner, questioned the military rationale behind the offensive on Ras al-Ain, saying Assad's forces have regrouped on the outskirts and his forces remained entrenched at a base on the road to the city of Hasaka to the south.

"With the regime still controlling the road to Hasaka, Ras al-Ain is almost useless as a supply line. There is no reason the Free Syrian Army should attack a safe area and make it unsafe," he said.

(This story corrects name of town in paragraph 7 to Ras al-Ain)

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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