HAWA, Syria (Reuters) - Syrian rebels have seized a military base in the country’s north, capturing weapons they hope will repel air raids by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, rebels said on Sunday.
Under cover of rain and fog, Col. Anas Ibrahim Abu Zeid led 200 fighters in a four-hour operation to take over the 135 Infantry Brigade base in the village of Hawa, a mostly Kurdish area in northern Aleppo province, on Saturday, they said, as they showed the base to journalists.
The rebels found about 150 soldiers at the base, though it can hold up to 3,000 troops, Abu Zeid said. Between 10-15 soldiers were taken prisoner, he said. They would not say what happened to the other troops, although a Reuters journalist saw at least one corpse.
The rebels said they lost six of their men.
The weapons were hidden in secret locations in Aleppo’s countryside, where the majority of the rebels fighting in this part of the country are from. At a warehouse in a residential area down a narrow street, rebels showed off two .57mm field guns and three 14-1/2 mm anti-aircraft guns.
The weapons, which could be dated back to World War Two, looked like they had never been used. The guns were still greased and wrapped in brown paper.
“We can now take down planes and helicopters ... by using more than one anti-aircraft gun to guarantee superior firepower at the same time on the target,” Abu Zeid, a bearded man with specks of grey dressed in army combat gear, told Reuters.
The capture of artillery and anti-aircraft guns has been a turning point for the rebels, who have gained momentum in recent months, seizing swathes of territory in northern Syria and surrounding key army bases and airports across the country.
Assad has relied increasingly on airpower to repel advances by the rebels, who do not have the firepower to take on Assad’s helicopters, MiGs and Sukhoi jets.
Abu Zeid, who defected from Assad’s brother’s 4th Mechanised Division in February, said they made the raid after intelligence a plane would drop ammunition for the weapons the next day.
Also seized were several dozen wooden boxes of new Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortar base plates, rocket-propelled grenades, bayonets, grenades, sniper rifles and at least 22 boxes of gas masks.
The weapons could help make up for rebel shortages. They complain they are yet to receive steady supplies from Western or Arab nations despite promises of support after most rebel forces vowed to unify under a regionalized chain of command this month.
“No group can now say they have no ammunition,” one fighter said. Another chimed in: “These are the bombs we will liberate Aleppo with.”
The base, with buildings perched on a hilltop overlooking miles of olive groves, served mostly for restocking and refueling forces in the northern sector, Abu Zeid said.
Activists said the base was set up in 2004 when tensions flared with ethnic minority Kurds. Because of its presence in mostly Kurdish territory, activists said the army had not used it to launch attacks to prevent Kurds from siding with rebels.
Soldiers from the rebel Fatah brigade tore down a picture of Assad perched on the roof of a deserted mess hall and spray painted Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest) in red across walls.
A pool of blood lay behind the sentry post. The body of a dead Alawite soldier, the same minority sect to which Assad belongs, lay in a field, covered in a brown blanket. Most of the rebel forces are from Syria’s majority Sunni population.
A prisoner lay on an army issue mattress. The young, bearded man was covered in a blanket, smoking, in a debris-filled room. He said he was a special forces sniper and had fought in Azaz, a border village near Turkey partially destroyed by tanks and shelling when rebels captured the town last summer.
Bone protruded from his wounded shin. Asked by Abu Zeid why he hadn’t defected, the prisoner said: “I feared for my family. They told us they were terrorists and killers.”
Edited by Jason Webb