Syrian rebels seize border crossing with Turkey as blasts shake Damascus
Akcakale, Turkey • Syrian rebels seized control of a border crossing on the frontier with Turkey on Wednesday, ripping down the Syrian flag as the rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad expand their control of the country's north.
Two bombs also exploded in a Damascus suburb, causing civilian casualties, according to Syria's state news agency SANA. The first blast went off near a secondary school in the Damascus suburb of Qudsayya, followed by a second explosion about 200 yards away, SANA said. The agency said school students were not among those hurt but had no further details.
Although the bloodshed prompted international sanctions that have isolated Assad's government, the regime still has the support of Russia, Iran and China. On Wednesday, Assad met with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi in the capital Damascus, Syria's state-run news agency reported.
Salehi arrived in Syria after a visit to Cairo as part of an Egyptian-sponsored Syria peace initiative grouping Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all supporters of the rebels with Iran.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi warned Iran on Tuesday that its support for the Syrian regime was hurting chances of better relations between Iran and Egypt. The promise of greater rapprochement with Egypt is part of a package of incentives and efforts by Morsi to lure Iran, Syria's staunchest regional ally, away from Damascus and find an end to the bloodshed.
After meeting with Assad on Wednesday, the Iranian foreign minister pledged his country's "unwavering support" to Syria to end the fighting, according to SANA.
Assad, in turn, said "the success of any initiative is the truthful intention to help Syria," the Syrian news agency said. SANA also quoted Assad as saying that the "current battle targets resistance as a whole not only Syria," an apparent reference to hardline groups and countries opposed to Israel's existence.
The capture of the border crossing with Turkey was a strategic boost for the rebels, allowing them to ferry supplies into the country as the fighters try to tip the balance in the civil war.
Syria's rebels have captured several other crossings into Turkey, as well as one on the border with Iraq. The seizure on Wednesday is believed to be the first time they have overrun a frontier post in the northern province of Raqqa, which could help in the fight for control of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.
"I am a free Syrian!" Zisha Bargash shouted, throwing his hands in the air as he watched the takeover from the Turkish side. "This is the beginning of the end Assad. Game over."
Bargash was among a dozen people some jubilant, some wounded who managed to crawl under a barbed wire barrier between the countries. Some replaced the national flag with a rebel banner, sparking loud cheers and applause.
Turkish officials cordoned off the area on the Turkish side of the border, and police prevented a crowd of people from trying to storm the area and cross into Syria.
Although the rebels appeared firmly in control of the crossing, scattered gunfire was heard on the Syrian side and a government flag was flying in the distance, suggesting government forces were not far away.
The takeover of the Tal Abyad crossing comes after a day of fierce clashes as rebels and regime forces fought for its control. Turkey's private Dogan news agency said earlier Wednesday that the rebels had surrounded the customs building and engaged in an intense firefight with Syrian snipers inside the building.
Civilians fleeing the violence reported that several people were killed in the fighting around Tal Abyad, Dogan reported. Several others were wounded in the battles and were taken to Turkey for treatment, the report said without giving specific numbers.
The 18-month-old conflict began with peaceful protests that were attacked by government security forces and has since evolved into a civil war. Activists say at least 23,000 people have been killed. Rebel factions have also been accused of summary executions and other abuses.
The conflict has sent refugees pouring into neighboring countries. Some 83,000 refugees have found shelter in 12 camps along the Turkish border with Syria.
Also Wednesday, Amnesty International said the Syrian government has carried out indiscriminate air bombardments and artillery strikes on residential areas that do not target opposition fighters or military objectives, and instead appear aimed solely at punishing civilians perceived to be supporters of the rebels.
Much of the recent fighting has centered on the contested city of Aleppo, but the London-based group said hundreds of civilians in other parts of northern and central Syria have been killed or wounded in recent weeks. Many of the victims were children, who were killed in attacks on people's homes, cities' streets or while trying to take shelter from the bombings.
The conclusions were published in an Amnesty report that followed a visit to Syria by senior crisis researcher Donatella Rovera, who traveled to 26 towns and villages in the Jabal al-Zawiya area and other parts of the northern Idlib and north Hama regions between Aug. 31 and Sept. 11.