By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times –
BEIRUT — Fierce clashes were reported Thursday in an area of north-central Syria where anti-government rebels earlier seized a border post across from neighboring Turkey.
Word of fighting in Al Raqqa province suggests that the tribal region, long regarded as a bastion of support for the government of President Bashar Assad, could be the latest battle zone in a conflict that has spread across much of the nation.
The region of Al Raqqa sits strategically between two heavily contested provinces—Aleppo and Dair Elzur, both featuring raging battles and large swaths of territory in rebel hands.
The opposition said at least 30 people were killed Thursday in the aerial bombardment by government forces of a busy gas station in the Raqqa town of Ain Issa. Unverified video footage posted online by opposition activists showed billowing black smoke and charred and burning vehicles.
There was no independent confirmation of the incident.
The Syrian government seldom if ever acknowledges use of combat aircraft or shelling. Officials blame the armed opposition—“terrorists,” in its official nomenclature—for attacking civilian targets and sabotaging infrastructure.
According to the opposition and human rights groups, the Syrian military is increasingly turning to air and artillery strikes, in part to preserve its thinly stretched security forces.
As the uprising enters its 18th month, the military has been deployed to ever-expanding theaters of combat, even as defections and high casualty rates batter their ranks.
Rebels said the gas station was south of the border crossing of Tal Abyad, which they reportedly seized on Wednesday after heavy fighting.
The Turkish media reported that schools were closed in the nearby Turkish border town of Akcakale, after stray bullets from the fighting struck a high school and several houses on the Turkish side.
The Tal Abyad post became at least the third border crossing along the Syrian-Turkish frontier said to fall to rebel gunmen. The loss of border facilities has highlighted the government’s eroding control of the rebellious north. Rebel tricolors now fly along seized border strips.
Apart from their symbolic importance, the border posts can provide key logistics corridors for rebel arms and other supplies arriving to the opposition from Turkey.
The official Syrian news agency reported that the military had inflicted “heavy losses” on “terrorists” in the border zone of Tal Abyad during heavy clashes.
The Al Raqqa area had been slow to embrace anti-Assad protests that began to sweep the country last year.
Last November, Assad personally visited the provincial capital on a major Muslim holiday and performed prayers, drawing enthusiastic crowds, reported Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel. Assad’s presence was seen as a gesture of gratitude to a loyal province.
However, anti-government demonstrators took to the streets of Raqqa’s provincial capital in March, drawing a fierce government crackdown, Al-Jazeera reported.
Elsewhere in Syria, the official news agency reported, security forces had killed 100 “Afghani terrorists” near a school in Aleppo, the nation’s commercial hu-. The Syrian government has repeatedly said that Islamic militants from abroad, including al-Qaida sympathizers, are stoking the conflict.
Rebel commanders in Aleppo—where a two-month battle for control of the city drags on—insist that foreign fighters account for no more than 1 percent of their forces.
Near the capital of Damascus, the government news service said Thursday that a helicopter crashed in an “accident” after it “clipped the tail” of a Syrian passenger jet carrying 200 people. The jet landed safety and there were no casualties, the state news agency said. There was no word on the fate of those in the helicopter.
In recent weeks, rebels have been targeting government aircraft and air bases. The opposition says its forces have shot down several helicopters and jet fighters The government has not acknowledged that any of its aircraft have been downed.