Syrian rebels battle for control of Raqqa, which could become 1st city to fall under complete opposition control

An image from Ugarit News, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows a statue of former Syrian President Hafez Assad being pulled down in a central square in Raqqa, Syria, March 4, 2013.
AP/Ugarit News

Beirut Syrian rebels battled pockets of regime loyalists in the northern city of Raqqa on Tuesday after capturing the governor of the northern province in fierce clashes overnight, activists said.

Rebel fighters pushed government troops from most of Raqqa, a city of some 500,000 people on the Euphrates River, on Monday. If the opposition manages to wrest all of Raqqa from the government, it would mark the first time an entire city has fallen into opposition hands, dealing both a strategic and a symbolic blow to President Bashar Assad's regime.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters captured the governor of Raqqa province, Hassan Jalili, after clashes overnight near the governor's office in the provincial capital, also named Raqqa. The Observatory said the head of Assad's ruling Baath party in the province was also in rebel custody.

Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said Jalili is one of the highest-ranking officials to fall into rebel hands since the Syrian crisis began nearly two years ago.

Fighting was still raging on Tuesday near an intelligence building in the city as well as several other places, he said, adding that "some of Raqqa is still under regime control."

The Observatory said government warplanes carried out air strikes on two targets in the city, causing an unspecified number of casualties. It also reported heavy fighting near an ammunition depot on the northern edge of the city.

Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks, capturing the country's largest dam west of the city. On Sunday, anti-Assad fighters stormed Raqqa city's central prison, and after rebels swept regime forces from much of the provincial capital on Monday, euphoric residents poured into the main square and tore down a bronze statue of Assad's late father, Hafez.

The Syrian conflict started two years ago as a popular uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule, then turned into a full-blown civil war after the rebels took up arms to fight a government crackdown on dissent. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

The relentless violence, which has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to flee the country, also has spilled over into neighboring states on several occasions, fanning fears of a regional conflict.

On Monday, gunmen killed 48 Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq for refuge, heightening concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria's crisis.

The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad's apparent willingness to quietly aid Assad's embattled regime.

The well-coordinated attack, which Baghdad officials blamed on al Qaeda's Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels' most potent fighters.