Syrian rebels battling troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad overran al-Raqqa after days of fierce fighting, and were now in “near-total control” of the northern city, activists said.
The fall of Raqqa, located on the Euphrates River, on Monday is a significant development in the two-year-old revolt against Assad. The rebels do not claim to hold any other provincial capitals.
Residents in Raqqa destroyed a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad (Bashar’s father), according to amateur video footage distributed by activists.
Rebel fighters said loyalist forces were still dug in at the provincial airport 60 km from the city and they remained a threat. A resident said that a Syrian military intelligence compound was not in rebel hands but was surrounded by anti-Assad fighters.
“This is the first provincial capital in Syria where rebels have made such progress. They now have near-total control of Raqqa city, except for some regime positions, including the military security and Baath party headquarters,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP news agency.
Activists said a police chief was killed and two senior security officials captured by the rebels.
“Rebels took the state security chief to Turkey,” Abdel Rahman said, noting that the road linking Raqqa to Turkey, including the border crossing at Tal al-Abyad, was under rebel control.
Raqqa was once home to 240,000 residents, but some 800,000 people forced to flee violence in other parts of Syria have sought shelter there ever since the start of the conflict.
In recent weeks, rebel fighters cut off all the army’s supply routes leading to the city and escalated their attacks on checkpoints and other regime positions.
Elsewhere, Syrian troops on Monday launched a major assault to capture rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs.
Regular troops backed by pro-regime fighters attacked the centre of Homs where rebels are holed up, including the Old City and neighbourhoods of Jouret al-Shiah, Khaldiyeh and Qarabees, it said.
Activists told Al Jazeera that the fighting in the embattled city was the worst since months, adding that scores of regime soldiers and rebels were killed.