x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Syrian rebel forces take control of vital town

The rebel gains have coincided with what regional officials and military experts said was a sharp increase in weapons shipments to opposition fighters as they prepare for a push on the capital.

BEIRUT // Syrian rebels on Friday captured a strategic town near the border with Jordan after a day of fierce clashes that killed at least 38 people, activists said, as opposition fighters expanded their presence in the south, considered a gateway to Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 16 rebels were among the dead in the fighting in and around Dael. The town lies less than 15 kilometres from the Jordanian border in Deraa province, where the uprising against Bashar Al Assad's regime began two years ago.

The rebel gains have coincided with what regional officials and military experts said was a sharp increase in weapons shipments to opposition fighters by Arab governments in coordination with the United States in the hopes of launching a push into Mr Al Assad's Damascus stronghold.

Although rebels control wide areas in northern Syria that border Turkey, the Jordanian frontier is only about 100km from Damascus, or a third of the distance to the Turkish border.

The battle for Dael came as authorities ordered an investigation into a mortar attack on Damascus University that killed at least 10 students on Thursday, state media said. The attack was the worst since a wave of mortar shells began hitting the capital last month, puncturing the sense of normality the regime has tried to cultivate in the city.

It was unclear who fired the mortar rounds. The government blamed "terrorists", its blanket term for those fighting Mr Al Assad's regime. Anti-regime activists accused the regime of staging the attack to turn civilians - many of whom in Damascus are already wary of the opposition fighters - against the rebels. "Rebels now control wide areas in the Deraa countryside,"' said Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory. "Every area that goes out of government control is important."

A Syrian activist, Maher Jamous, who is from Dael but currently lives in the UAE, said that despite the steady advances and the latest rebel victory in Dael, the regime still maintained a strong presence in the strategic province that leads to the capital.

He said the capture of Dael increased the pressure on the regime, which is known to have posted elite troops in Deraa province, which separates Damascus from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights captured by the Jewish state in 1967 and annexed in 1981.

Mr Jamous said Dael had a population of 40,000, making it one of the bigger towns in the primarily agricultural region, which is dotted with small family farms. He added that the town fell briefly into opposition hands in the early days of the uprising, but was retaken by regime forces in May 2011. Turkish authorities said they had seized thousands of guns in a warehouse by the Syrian border, and a local news agency said the weapons had been destined for Turkey's war-torn neighbour.

The firearms - including more than 5,000 shotguns and rifles, starting pistols, gunstocks and 10,000 cartridges - were found during a raid in a village on the edge of the Turkish town of Akcakale.

The Dogan News Agency said the weapons were awaiting delivery to Syria, and that the 35-year-old depot owner had been detained.

Police said the firearms had a market value of about 3 million lira (Dh6.24m).

* Associated Press