Syria rebels seize 40 prisoners in assault they say was ordered from Turkey

From Altal, Syria, a rebel fighter gives a victory cry after capturing a government position
From Altal, Syria, a rebel fighter gives a victory cry after capturing a government position Austin Tice

One day after a bomb killed three top members of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, rebel forces in this town four miles north of the capital Damascus abruptly ended a de facto truce that had existed with government forces since the beginning of the anti-Assad uprising, storming two government positions, striking the government flag, and capturing significant stores of weapons and ammunition. The rebels also took more than 40 prisoners.

The local Free Syrian Army commander said that he undertook the assault after receiving an order Wednesday night from rebel headquarters in southern Turkey. He said the attack had long been planned.

Lack of centralized control has been a hallmark of rebel forces since the beginning of the conflict, but the commander was adamant that the atttack order came from Turkey.

One resident said that Al Tal, a wealthy Damascus suburb with an estimated population of 75,000, had been able to purchase its peace from the government. He said the town had not been shelled once since the beginning of the conflict 16 months ago.

The rebels launched simultaneous assaults against the two positions around noon, attacking with assault rifles, light machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. A rebel fighter said that the Free Syrian Army here does not possess heavier weapons such as Russian-made Dushka machine guns, and none was seen during the battle.

The battle continued for six hours. Government forces responded with heavy machine-gun fire from checkpoints in the surrounding hills. Two attack helicopters circled throughout the afternoon, delivering machine-gun and rocket fire into the town.

The bulk of the helicopter fire was directed at a single building, located on a hill in the northern part of the city, at least half a mile from the fighting. Toured later in the afternoon, the heavily damaged building turned out to be a bakery. It was unclear why the helicopters had chosen this unlikely target.

About 6 p.m., rebel forces succeeded in taking both positions. They searched room to room for prisoners, sensitive documents and materiel, carrying away weapons, ammunition, computers, riot control gear, and boxes of ammunition.

The scene was euphoric, as rebels chanted revolutionary slogans and threw posters and busts of Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, into the street. Two men climbed to the roof and struck the government flag, erecting a three-starred revolutionary flag in its place.

Rebels removed prisoners and bodies before allowing reporters inside. Numerous bloodstains could be seen throughout the building.

About 45 prisoners were transported to the rebels’ nearby headquarters, where they were held, hands bound, in a large room. One prisoner, critically wounded during the battle by gunshot wounds to the chest and neck, appeared to be in stable condition after receiving treatment from a rebel doctor.

A fighter said that the prisoners were well-known in the city and that rebels had individual files on each man. He said that those accused of war crimes would be executed and the others released, but he expressed an expectation that most would be executed.

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