Syria pounds rebels trying to seize strategic city
BEIRUT — As Turkey sought to increase its military presence along its border with Syria, opposition fighters in Syria were waging an offensive Tuesday to seize a strategic city in Idlib province.
The offensive led to some of the most intense government air attacks on the city of Maarat Numan to date and left more than 60 people dead, at least 40 of them civilians, activists said. They were among at least 115 people killed across the country Tuesday in the conflict.
The clashes and government airstrikes came as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said Tuesday that it has plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary after almost a week of cross-border shelling by the two countries.
Last week, five Turks were killed when a Syrian mortar round landed in a Turkish town. On Monday, Turkey sent 25 fighter jets to an air base near the border.
“Obviously, Turkey has a right to defend herself within international law,” said NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, speaking at the start of a defense ministers meeting in Brussels. “I would add to that that obviously Turkey can rely on NATO solidarity.”
In Maarat Numan, Free Syrian Army rebels launched an offensive Monday to seize the city from government control and attacked numerous military checkpoints.
“The fighting won’t end until all the checkpoints are gone,” said Ahmad Halabi, an activist in the city. “The planning has been ongoing for two months, but we were waiting to unite the ranks and get the weapons.”
Regular artillery attacks on Maarat Numan have been launched from the checkpoints for months, he said. But the rebel push, if successful, would do more than just put the city of more than 100,000 residents under opposition control.
Maarat Numan is strategically situated on the main highway linking the country’s commercial hub, Aleppo, and the capital, Damascus. If the rebels are able to seize this part of the highway, they could control the road from the Turkish border to the central city of Hama, ensuring a crucial supply line for weapons and aid, Halabi said.
Seizing the section of highway would also disrupt government reinforcements and isolate the few army and security forces bases left in Idlib.
Meanwhile, in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, two suicide car bombings Monday night targeted an air force intelligence compound, the latest in a series of bombings by rebel forces targeting President Bashar Assad’s security and military buildings.
The Al Qaeda-affiliated group Al Nusra Front claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement on its Facebook page.
The attack began with the detonation of a vehicle loaded with 9 tons of explosives and was followed 25 minutes later by the explosion of an ambulance, rigged with 1 ton of explosives, that arrived with other ambulances, the group said.
Mortar attacks and a gunfight followed the twin bombings, activists said.
In another Damascus suburb, activists Tuesday discovered 25 charred bodies in the orchards of Dariya.
The discovery of mass executions of civilians, who activists say are being killed by government forces, is occurring with regularity across Syria.