Syria opposition says captures eastern city of Raqqa

AMMAN Mon Mar 4, 2013 2:01pm EST

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian opposition fighters captured the northeastern city of Raqqa on Monday and crowds toppled a statue of President Bashar al-Assad's father, opposition sources and a resident said.

If confirmed, the fall of the provincial capital on the Euphrates River 160 km (100 miles) east of Aleppo would make it the first major city taken by the opposition since a revolt against Assad broke out two years ago.

"The city of Raqqa has fallen," Mustafa Nawaf al-Ali of the Syrian National Council told Reuters.

He said mostly Islamist brigades, including the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra front, Ahrar al-Sham and the Sunni Hawks entered Raqqa after overrunning an army position at its northern entrance.

Nawaf al-Ali said Assad's troops and militia loyal to him escaped west towards Aleppo and east towards the province of Deir al-Zor, but loyalist forces dug in at the provincial airport, 60 km (40 miles) from Raqqa, remained a threat.

A resident also said the city had fallen and said a Syrian military intelligence compound in the city centre was surrounded by rebels. He added that crowds had pulled down a statue of President Assad's father in the main square nearby.

Video footage showed a crowd stepping on the large white stone statue in the central square.

The Syrian National Council, a large bloc within the umbrella Syrian National Coalition, said the capture of Raqqa would prove "a decisive victory in the struggle for the downfall of the criminal Assad regime and to salvage Syria from the ugliest epoch in its history."

In a statement, the council said that with the fall of Raqqa a link was established between vast areas that fell to the opposition in the oil-producing east of the country and rebel-held regions in the northern Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Stephen Powell)

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