BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels said on Monday they had briefly seized control of a strategic army base and threatened to fire its surface-to-air missiles at President Bashar al-Assad’s palace, but were forced to withdraw by an army counter-attack.
With the help of 22 sympathetic soldiers inside, rebels said they overran the al-Ghanto base and looted machineguns and bullets - but no missiles - before the army rained down artillery and forced them out of the station, close to the central town of Rastan.
“This radar, these vehicles and those rockets were seized by the Free Syrian Army,” said Captain Abdullah Bahboh in a video posted on YouTube, which shows him pointing at surface-to-air missiles and military trucks at the captured base.
The rebel captain was surrounded by young men who brandished their weapons and kissed each other to celebrate their audacious but short-lived conquest.
“These rockets are now directed at the presidential palace and we warn (President) Bashar al-Assad that if he doesn’t give up his throne, we will launch these rockets,” he said.
Bahboh said the attack on the base was revenge for massacres by Assad’s forces, whom the United Nations accuses of killing at least 10,000 people during a 15-month crackdown on a pro-democracy movement that has developed into an armed uprising.
“With coordination with 22 soldiers and officers in the 743rd Air Defence Brigade, we took the base and seized weapons in the early hours of Sunday June 10th,” said Bahboh, who referred to himself as head of the rebel military office for northern Homs province, where the base is located.
The video shows three Syrian army prisoners sitting with their hands tied behind their backs.
“They are safe, they are with us,” Bahboh said.
Rebel spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Qassim Saad al-Din told Reuters that the rebels had taken AK-47 machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades from the base, but had been unable to remove the larger surface-to-air missiles before the army attacked.
“These missiles were fixed to launchers and were too heavy to remove,” he said.
Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said the amateur videos appeared to show SA-2 surface-to-air missiles and provided Reuters with an picture from a satellite imagery provider showing the al-Ghanto base in flames.
Soviet-designed SA-2 missiles are designed to be fired at aircraft. The presidential palace would be out of their range.
Bouckaert said that large missiles falling into the hands of disparate militias was not a big problem in global arms proliferation, as they were hard to move and operate.
“The real danger is from smaller weapons, like shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles. As we saw in Libya, once these weapons are looted they become very difficult to trace, and basically go underground,” he said.
Bouckaert pointed to weapons looted by revolutionary fighters in Libya have now reappeared on black markets in neighboring countries.
“We know there are anti-tank, mines and even chemical weapons in Assad’s depots,” he added.
Editing by Andrew Roche