Syrian jets bomb rebels in key northern city

Regime hits back 1 day after stronghold fell to Assad's foes
2013-03-06T00:00:00Z Syrian jets bomb rebels in key northern cityThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 06, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Syrian jets bombed opposition-held buildings Tuesday in the strategic northern city of Raqqa, a day after rebels overran the onetime regime stronghold and captured its provincial governor.

A toppled statue of President Bashar Assad's father was defaced with graffiti reading, "Tomorrow will be better."

The rebels continued to battle pockets of government troops in Raqqa, struggling to crush the remaining resistance in the city of 500,000 on the Euphrates River.

If successful, it would be the first major city they would completely control in the civil war, and it would consolidate their recent gains in the northern Syrian towns along the historic river that runs from Turkey to Iraq.

"This is the beginning, and other Syrian cities will soon fall, one by one, God willing," said Mustafa Othman, a Raqqa-based activist who spoke via Skype, with gunfire sounds in the background.

But government airstrikes and intermittent clashes, particularly around two security buildings, raised doubt about whether the rebels would be able to maintain their hold on Raqqa, about 120 miles east of the commercial capital of Aleppo.

Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks. Last month they captured the country's largest dam west of the city, and this week they stormed its central prison.

On Monday, they swept regime forces from much of the provincial capital, prompting residents to pour into the main square and tear down the large bronze statue of Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez.

Images of cheering rebels and residents bringing down the statue after tying a rope around its neck were reminiscent of the toppling of the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 after U.S. troops stormed Baghdad.

The Syrians beat the felled statue of Hafez Assad with their shoes in a sign of disrespect, and at least one person hit it repeatedly with a hatchet. Others tore down a huge portrait of the current president.

In one photo from Raqqa, a man sat on the toppled statue, which had been spray-painted with the Arabic phrase "tomorrow will be better."

It was a striking scene in a city once considered so loyal to the regime that in November 2011 - early in the 2-year-old uprising - Assad prayed at Raqqa's al-Nour mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid in an apparent attempt to show that the regime was fully in control there.

Some activists posted the images of the fallen statue on Facebook and Twitter with the words "Made in Syria," a reference to the homegrown nature of the rebellion.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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