BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels captured an ammunition depot north of Damascus from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces on Saturday, activists said, seizing a hoard of anti-tank missiles and rockets which will strengthen their firepower after a string of defeats.
Video footage of the raid showed delighted rebel fighters carrying out boxes of weapons from the arms cache in Denha, near the town of Yabroud, following an overnight attack.
Still largely outgunned by Assad’s forces, who have gained ground around the capital Damascus and Syria’s third largest city Homs, the rebels have sought arms to tip the balance of power in the two-year conflict that has killed at least 100,000.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sent weapons, although Western nations have not, and the rebels have also acquired a steady supply of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, through their own raids on military bases.
One video released last week showed rebel fighters firing what appeared to be a vehicle-borne anti-aircraft missile system captured from the army several months ago.
Saturday’s raid yielded French-made Milan anti-tank missiles, Russian Konkurs missiles and Grad rockets, according to video footage which showed the victorious rebels carrying off their haul through the dark corridors of the captured complex.
“Our return to Qusair just got closer,” shouted one fighter, referring to the former rebel stronghold and border town which was captured two months ago by Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas allied to Assad.
Following their victory in Qusair, south west of Homs, Assad’s forces took control of several nearby towns and villages and on Monday they seized the Homs district of Khaldiya after weeks of urban warfare, tightening their siege on the few remaining rebel bastions in the strategic city.
“God willing, we will liberate Homs completely,” the fighter in Saturday’s video said.
Homs lies on the main north-south highway which links most of Syria’s main cities, and also forms a link between Assad’s capital in Damascus and the heartland of his minority Alawite community in the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean.
A aerial picture, taken by a government drone shot down by rebels, showed the devastation of the city which was once at the heart of the anti-Assad rebellion. Street after street appeared empty and ruined, lined by shattered and abandoned buildings.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government forces bombarded al-Qusour, one of the remaining rebel-held neighborhoods on Saturday.
In the northwestern Homs district of Al Waer, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF warned that 400,000 civilians, who had moved their to seek shelter from the violence in central Homs, were in danger.
UNICEF director Anthony Lake said clashes and rocket strikes in Al Waer meant the situation there had worsened in recent days and appealed to both the army and rebels to allow aid to get in.
“We call on all parties to facilitate immediate safe access to these families so we can provide life-saving assistance, and to allow those families currently trapped in Al Waer who wish to leave to do so in safety and in dignity,” he said.
The conflict, that started with mainly peaceful protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule, descended into a sectarian war which has drawn in regional powers. Nearly two million have fled the country and four million are internally displaced.
In the same border region near Yabroud where the missile stocks were seized, Syrian jets killed at least six people in an air strike, Lebanese security sources said. Some of the wounded had been brought into Lebanon for treatment.
Also on Saturday, Syria’s main opposition coalition appealed for the release of a prominent Italian Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, a strong supporter of the rebels who went missing in the eastern city of Raqqa on Monday.
Activists said the priest, who had worked to reconcile Kurdish fighters battling Islamist brigades, been abducted by al Qaeda-linked fighters.
The coalition said in a statement it “urges any party which might be involved in his detention to free him immediately”.
Editing by Louise Ireland