Captured Syrian city a test for rebel forces


BEIRUT (AP) — Since rebels seized the capital of Raqqa province in northern Syria from the government last week, they have posted guards at state buildings, returned bread prices to pre-war levels and opened a hotline that residents can phone to report security issues, anti-regime activists said Sunday.

At the same time, they have killed captured security forces in public squares and driven their dead bodies through the streets. The most powerful rebel brigades in the city are extremist Muslims and include Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. government says is linked to al-Qaida.

As the first major Syrian city to fall entirely under rebel control, Raqqa is shaping up to be the best test case yet for how opposition fighters will administer territory amid Western concerns over who will fill the vacuum if President Bashar Assad is ousted. While the city's new rulers try to govern, they are struggling with the same divisions that have hampered the rebel movement's effectiveness throughout Syria's civil war.

The rising power of Islamic extremists in their ranks also could block them from receiving badly needed aid from countries that support the anti-Assad struggle but fear weapons could fall into the wrong hands. The United States recently promised $60 million in new, non-lethal assistance to the opposition inside Syria, and other powers are considering sending arms. Most of these countries would look askance, however, at rebels who seek an Islamic state or stand accused of war crimes.

Rebels in Raqqa reached via phone and Skype on Sunday acknowledged the strength of Islamic brigades but said these groups didn't seek to impose outside ideologies on the city. "This is not Islamic extremism," said Abu Yazan, a leader in the Islamist Faithful of Raqqa Brigade. "It is these Islamic movements that freed us from the criminal regime."

Over the last year, rebels have greatly expanded the territory they hold in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo along the Turkish border. In February, they extended their control into Raqqa province, seizing a hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates River. After storming a central prison, they seized most of Raqqa city on March 4, solidifying their control over the next two days.

That made Raqqa, a north-central city of 500,000 people, the first of Syria's provincial capitals to fall entirely under rebel control.

Since then, the city's rebels have been bedeviled by the same problems that have hindered them elsewhere. Most residents fled during the fighting and have stayed away, fearing the government attacks that often follow rebel takeovers.

Two such strikes hit the province on Saturday, killing at least 14 people and leaving dead bodies scattered in the streets, according to activists and a video posted online.

Other videos have surfaced online of government security officers killed after their capture by rebels.

One shot Saturday shows the bodies of three men face down in a public square, their hands bound and their brains blown out.

"The dogs of military security were executed in Clock Square," an off-camera narrator says.

Another video shows rebels driving the dead body of a military intelligence official around town in the back of a truck. At one point, they lay it in a street next to another body. Both have holes in their heads.

A Raqqa activist said Sunday via Skype that military security was notorious for its brutality toward the opposition during the uprising, which began with anti-regime protests in March 2011 and later spiraled into civil war. The U.N. says more than 70,000 people have been killed since.

When rebels entered the city, they surrounded the military security compound and granted safe passage to the 60 officers inside to a nearby airport, he said. On the way to the airport, however, the officers tried to break away, sparking clashes that killed four rebels and nine officers. The rest fled. Rebels then killed them upon capture as punishment, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he attends university in a government-controlled area.

Abu Yazan, the rebel leader, corroborated the story but said only 30 officers were involved. The body displayed in the truck, he said, was an officer named Mohammed al-Ahmed who was known for his brutality.

"Praise God that we killed him," he said. "God willing we have finished with his evil forever."

Other regime officials appear to have been kept alive. Activists have distributed videos of the provincial governor, Hassan Jalali; the branch head of the ruling Baath party, Suleiman al-Suleiman; and the deputy chief of military security, Col. Ahmed Abdullah al-Jadou.

All videos appeared authentic and corresponded to other reporting by The Associated Press.

The activist also said rebels had captured some 50 political security officers, who are now in a local prison.

The Syrian government has remained mum on the situation in Raqqa in recent days. It blames the violence in the country on an international conspiracy carried out by terrorists.

Syria's pro-government al-Watan newspaper denied Wednesday that Raqqa had fallen, while naming officials who had been captured. It said army reinforcements had reached the city and quoted a military official as saying the city would be "freed" in a few days.

Also Sunday, some of the fiercest fighting in a year was reported in Baba Amr, the neighborhood in the central city of Homs that stood for rebel defiance earlier in the war but also for the government's ability to strike back. The Syrian military besieged Baba Amr for a month last year, killing hundreds of people before retaking the area.

Rebels and regime troops clashed again Sunday in Baba Amr as the government shelled and bombed, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group. Amateur video showed clouds of smoke above Homs.

In the Damascus suburb of Harasta, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired at a van carrying preschoolers, according to Syrian state TV and a government official. The attack killed one child and wounded nine, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with briefing regulations.

As some fighters left to attack the remaining regime bases in the province, others have struggled to run the city's affairs.

The Raqqa activist said the city's market opened Sunday, though most residents have not returned. He said rebels had secured enough flour to reopen bakeries and return bread prices to their pre-war level of about 20 cents a bag from about ten times much, he said.

The city currently has two local councils, each run by lawyers who don't like each other, he said.

The city still has about 80 rebel groups, he said, which make coordination difficult. But he said the Faithful of Raqqa Brigade has led efforts to provide security, posting gunmen at government buildings to stop looters.

In a video posted online, the group announced a hotline that residents can call to request assistance. A call placed to the number by an AP reporter was promptly answered by a brigade member.

Abu Yazan, a leader with the group, said he expects they'll get more calls as civilians return to the city.

"The primary goal is to serve the citizen and nothing more," he said.


Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.