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Raqqa, Syria, falls to rebels

RAQQA, Syria, March 4 (UPI) — Syrian rebels fought government forces on several fronts Monday, and controlled the city of Raqqa after days of clashes, activist groups said.

The fall of the provincial capital signifies a potentially important turn in the Syrian conflict, Raqqa being the first capital completely taken over by armed resistance to President Bashar Assad, The New York Times reported Monday.

Videos posted on the Internet showed the destruction of a statue of Hafez Assad, the former Syrian president and Bashar’s father. Footage showed the statue being pulled down, its head smashed in the fall, the newspaper said.

Regime opponents said fighting in the central city of Homs also escalated Monday, a day after high casualties in battles in Aleppo.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in London, said fighting flared in Homs after government forces launched an offensive, backed by tanks and warplanes, to dislodge rebels.

Successions of “explosions that shook the whole city” and clouds of black smoke were observed, activist Abu Bilal said, and The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, reported “fierce and continuous shelling from heavy artillery and rocket launchers.”

The clashes in Homs shifted attention from Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where fighting continued for days around the Khan al-Asal police academy, the Times said.

The Syrian pro-government newspaper al-Watan accused opposition fighters of killing 115 police officers and wounding 50.

The Local Coordination Committees said Sunday the rebel Free Syrian Army “liberated the police academy” and “is now conducting a search of the place.”

Sunday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 200 government soldiers and rebels died in the fighting in Aleppo. With other fatalities elsewhere, the count for Sunday, it said, stood at 260 dead, including 115 government troops, 104 rebels and 45 civilians.

Copyright 2013 United Press International, Inc. (UPI).

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