CILVEGOZU, Turkey/BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Syrian rebels took control of two major crossings on the border with Turkey and the main Abu Kamal post on the border with Iraq on Thursday, the first time opponents of President Bashar al-Assad have seized posts on the country’s frontiers.
Hakim al-Zamili, head of the security and defense committee in the Iraqi parliament, told a local television station that rebels were in control of the Abu Kamal border crossing, on the Damascus-Baghdad highway and one of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.
A Syrian rebel fighter and a opposition spokesman said militants seized control of the customs and immigration buildings on the Syrian side of the northern Turkish frontier gate of Bab al-Hawa and activists said the Jarablus crossing also fell into rebel hands.
Rebels have tried to seize Bab al-Hawa, a vital commercial crossing, for 10 days but managed to oust soldiers after heavy fighting on Thursday, the rebel said.
Footage that activists said was filmed at Bab al-Hawa showed rebels climbing onto the roofs of buildings at the crossing and tearing up a poster of Assad.
“The army withdrew,” a rebel fighter who would only be identified as Abu Ali told Reuters on the Turkish side of the border, where he was being treated for wounds. “The crossing is under our control - they withdrew their armored vehicles.”
Ahmad Zaidan, spokesman for an opposition group called the Higher Council of the Revolution’s Leadership, said rebels were already in charge of large areas around the border crossing.
The reported seizure of Bab al-Hawa, opposite the Turkish Cilvegozu gate in Hatay province, comes after the rebels said they were forced to withdraw earlier on Thursday after they attacked the gate, guarded by some 200 troops, but had to pull back when government helicopters were called in.
The raid was also meant to provide an opportunity for opposition sympathizers among the government soldiers to defect.
The rebels had planned for 80 soldiers to defect but only 14 managed to escape, Zaidan said. Most defections, he said, were pre-planned and sympathetic soldiers would know of an impending rebel attack.
The border crossing was closed after the attack and around 40 Syrian and Saudi trucks lined up on the Turkish side were unable to cross.
While cross-border trade and traffic has been greatly reduced as violence inside Syria has increased, border gates along the 910-km (560-mile) Turkey-Syria border have largely remained open and vehicles have been free to cross.
At Jarablus, 400 km (250 miles) northwest of Damascus, activists said military and intelligence personnel pulled out from the nearby border town of Ain al-Arab, inhabited by members of Syria’s Kurdish minority.
In neighboring Iraq, Zamili urged the Iraqi government to send extra troops to the border, al-Iraqiya television said.
Iraq said earlier this month it had reinforced security along its 680 km (420 miles) desert border with Syria, making it Iraq’s most heavily guarded frontier.
A local police official at the Sinjar border crossing in northern Iraq said it was still under Syrian government army control: “We have heard no shooting, nothing has changed.”
The border raids came as rebels clashed with troops loyal to Assad in Damascus and a day after a bomb attack on a security meeting in the Syrian capital killed three of the president’s closest allies.
Turkey, which has called on Assad to step down, is giving sanctuary to opposition members and fighters on its soil and is providing shelter to more than 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing violence at home.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Baghdad, Jamal al-Badrani in Mosul, Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Myra MacDonald