Syria rebels fight to recapture symbolic mosque of uprising

AMMAN Thu Mar 21, 2013 11:00am EDT

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels are fighting to reclaim the mosque that became the focal point for protests in Deraa, cradle of the two-year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Situated near the Jordanian border, Deraa has become a vital battleground as it sits near Damascus, the capital. Government and rebel forces are fighting hard for control of the town, with Assad's side still maintaining the upper hand.

Rebels briefly seized Deraa's Omari mosque on Wednesday and filmed themselves marching through its battered courtyard where protesters first gathered on March 18, 2011 and set off for large anti-Assad demonstrations.

A video uploaded by rebels in Deraa shows a crowd of fighters touring the brown stone Omari mosque and examining piles of rubble and the pockmarked minaret, with explosions sounding in the background.

"Look, oh Muslims, this is the Omari mosque!" shouts one of the fighters in the video, as dozens of men shout "Allahu Akbar (God is great)." Some of the men put down their weapons and knelt to pray.

The battle for the mosque carries special symbolism for the Syrian opposition as it is happening around the second anniversary of security forces overrunning the site in a bloody assault on demonstrators.

From March 23 to 25, 2011, Syrian security forces killed at least 31 people in an attack on the Omari mosque.

The mosque had served as a meeting point and a makeshift clinic when Assad's forces began to crack down on protesters, first with batons and later with live fire.

When security forces regained control of the rebellious city, the mosque was surrounded with guards and checkpoints.

A resident in Deraa's old city told Reuters that rebels were only temporarily able to hold the Omari mosque, as the army was still heavily garrisoned in the district. But he said rebels had made more substantial advances near Jordan's border this week.

A rebel spokesman from the Southern Unification Brigade said insurgents were still fighting to keep a hold on the mosque. "There are heavy clashes going on around the mosque now and the rebels are repelling every advance by tanks from the nearby checkpoint," said Abu Muntaser said, speaking via Skype.

"The area around the mosque has been a scene of clashes for the last two weeks. Once the checkpoint is liberated then the mosque and the area surrounding it will be completely in the hands of the rebels."

Syria's conflict has devolved into a civil war that has killed more than 70,000 people. Rebels now control much of the north and east of the large Arab state but do not dominate any major city.

Opposition fighters are now trying to seize territory in the Deraa region in hopes of increasing pressure on Damascus.

Further southwest, rebels on Thursday overran several towns near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past 24 hours, according to insurgents and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Writing and additional reporting by Erika Solomon; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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