AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian rebels on Sunday seized a Syrian military intelligence compound in the southern Hauran Plain near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, stepping up attacks in the strategic region which stretches to the outskirts of the capital Damascus, rebel commanders said.
The frontier, quiet since Israel and Syria agreed on a U.S.-brokered ceasefire in 1974, has turned volatile in recent weeks, after opposition brigades stepped up attacks against army and intelligence compounds dotting the agricultural plain stretching from the border with Jordan to the Damascus outskirts.
At least 70,000 people have been killed since a peaceful protest movement led by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority broke out two years ago against four decades of family rule by President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to the minority Alawite sect, and his father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
The demonstrations were met by bullets, eventually sparking a Sunni backlash and a mostly Islamist armed insurgency increasingly spearheaded by the al Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, creating a political dilemma for regional and Western powers and deepening the Shi’ite-Sunni divide in the Middle East.
The compound near the Yarmouk River in the town of Shagara, 8 km (5 miles) from a ceasefire line with Israel, fell after a five-day siege, the sources said.
“We have completely taken over this security compound this morning. It’s a command center for the shabbiha (pro-Assad militia). They retreated after strong blows dealt to them during a five day siege,” said Abu Iyas al-Haurani, a member of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
“Anyone who was arrested in the Yarmouk Valley was sent to this military intelligence headquarters to be tortured and it has a strategic importance. With its fall we have completed our liberation of the town of Shagara,” he added.
Another rebel commander said the aim of the attacks in western Hauran is to open a new front in the fight against Assad that would stretch troops deployed in Hauran, cradle of the two-year revolt, and to secure a supply route to the western and southern approaches of Damascus, where battles have been fierce.
Assad’s elite forces, however, remain dug in at Qasioun Mountain in the center of Damascus.
On Sunday battles broke out in the southern Damascus suburb of Sbeineh, a residential area on the main road leading south into Hauran after opposition fighters stormed a compound housing shabbiha militia, activists in the capital said.
Dozens of people were killed and wounded in the fighting and in ensuing army shelling in the town, they added.
Rebel brigades overran last week a missile squadron in Khan Sheihoun, a town southwest of Damascus on the road to the Golan, and seized an army barracks.
Further south, in the old center of Deraa, Hauran’s main city, situated at the border with Jordan, rebels were trying to take the Omari mosque, scene of killings at a pro-democracy demonstration on March 18, 2011 that sparked the national revolt, but security forces positioned at a nearby post office were fighting back, activist Thaer al-Abdallah said from Deraa.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague interview with Sky News, said on Sunday that Britain has “taken no decision at the moment to send arms to anybody in Syria”.
He said sending arms to the opposition had to be weighed against the risks of “international terrorism and extremism taking root in Syria, the risks of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan being destabilized, and the risks of extreme humanitarian distress.”
Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi and Tim Castle; Editing by Stephen Powell