News / Middle East

Syrian Rebels Seize Northern Border Crossing

Civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army inspect a damaged building in al-Kalaseh neighbourhood in Aleppo, after a morning jet air strike, September 19, 2012.
Civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army inspect a damaged building in al-Kalaseh neighbourhood in Aleppo, after a morning jet air strike, September 19, 2012.
VOA News
Syrian rebels have seized control of a third border crossing with Turkey after fierce battles with government troops, as fighting raged in the key cities of Aleppo and Damascus.

VOA correspondent Elizabeth Arrott reported from the Syrian capital Wednesday that thick, black smoke was rising from contested suburbs there - and that residents are getting nervous.

"In large part, I think people are just a little more pessimistic," said Arrott. "One gentleman today just said, 'This situation isn't bad.  It's awful.'"

At the Tal Abyad crossing near Turkey, rebels tore down the Syrian flag as Turkish authorities quickly closed the area and prevented a crowd of people from attempting to storm the border and cross into Syria.

This is the first time forces fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have overrun a border zone in al-Raqqa province, most of which has remained solidly pro-government.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels withdrew from three southern districts of Damascus after weeks of heavy combat and shelling. In the northern city of Aleppo, the army said rebels attacked several military positions in the east overnight and that helicopter gunships eventually drove them off.

The Observatory said 32 people have been killed nationwide so far on Wednesday, including 27 civilians, after 173 died the previous day.

VOA's Elizabeth Arrott says the fighting is starting to weigh on those living in the capital, although life goes on as people head to work and maintain a sense of normalcy.

"I think [for] people in the street, it's just not clear how you get - what the solution would be," she said. "How does this end?  And, in fact, one analyst, a professor I was talking to today, gave the example of Lebanon, which is kind of frightening.  That went on for 15 years."

Arrott says many in Damascus also are worried about the bigger picture.

"No matter whose side they're [Syrians] on, I think there is a great sense this is a proxy war.  There are varying interests from varying countries and super powers and neighbors.  And it makes people feel a little bit, perhaps, these are issues far beyond their control," said VOA's Elizabeth Arrott.

  • Free Syrian Army fighters walk down stairs in a damaged building in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 26, 2012.
  • Twin blasts targeting Syria's army command headquarters rocked the capital on Sept. 26, setting off hours of sporadic gunbattles and a raging fire inside the heavily guarded compound, state-run media and witnesses said.
  • The Syrian official news agency SANA photo shows the remains of a vehicle and other debris where they landed after a car exploded at Syria's army command headquarters in Damascus, Syria, Sept. 26, 2012.
  • A Free Syrian Army fighter kisses the the head of his comrade, killed by a tank blast, in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 26, 2012.
  • A Free Syrian Army soldier, right, looks through a mirror which helps him see Syrian troops from the other side, as he takes his position with his comrade during fighting, in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 24, 2012.
  • In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces patrol the damaged area of the al-Arqoub district in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 24, 2012.
  • In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces storm a building in the al-Arqoub district of Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 24, 2012.
  • A Free Syrian Army soldier, right, shows his comrade how to use an RPG at a Turkish bath or Turkish Hamam which the rebels took as a base and rest position, in Aleppo, Syria, Sept. 24, 2012.
  • A Free Syrian Army fighter fires an anti-aircraft machine gun against a Syrian Army jet in the Saif Al Dula district in Aleppo, September 19, 2012.
  • Civilians and members of the Free Syrian Army try to pull out a body from under the rubble of a building destroyed by a jet air strike in al-Kalaseh, Aleppo, Syria, September 19, 2012.

Also Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi met President Assad and other officials in Damascus, to discuss proposals by regional powers to end the 18-month conflict. Iran, Syria's main Middle East ally, has denied accusations it is providing military aid to the Syrian government.

Following their meeting, Assad said the war engulfing Syria is targeting not only it but the "axis of resistance" - a term Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement use to refer to their common opposition to Israel.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International said the Syrian government has been increasingly carrying out "relentless, indiscriminate" attacks against residential areas that appear to be aimed solely at punishing civilians seen as sympathetic to rebel forces.

The rights watchdog issued a report Wednesday based on its investigation earlier this month in Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and Hama provinces.

Amnesty's Donatella Rovera told VOA the situation in northern Syria has significantly deteriorated since the end of July when government forces were pushed out of most of the area.

"Since then they've been essentially striking from afar, both air bombardments and artillery and mortar shelling, which are of very little use for hitting military targets because they are aerial weapons," said Rovera.

Rovera said such "battlefield weapons" have a wide impact radius and fall randomly over residential areas "with disastrous consequences for the civilian population."

Amnesty reiterated calls made by human rights groups for the United Nations Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court for probes into possible war crimes.

It also warned that opposition fighters may turn to indiscriminate attacks, and it urged rebel groups to communicate to fighters that such violations will not be tolerated.

Earlier this week, a United Nations panel presented a finding blaming both sides in Syria for increasing the number of attacks against civilians.

The U.N. commission of inquiry said that although both government and anti-government forces have committed war crimes, the abuses by opposition forces has not reached the "gravity, frequency and scale" of those carried out by pro-government fighters.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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