Syrian government airstrikes killed at least 14 people in the northern province of Raqqa less than a week after rebels seized the area’s provincial capital, activists said today.
The city of Raqqa, home to a half million people before the uprising against President Bashar Assad began two years ago, could prove a test case for how rebels administer areas they capture.
The rebel groups that led the battle for the city are comprised largely of strongly conservative Muslims, some of them extremists, and videos released over the weekend indicate some fighters have killed captured soldiers.
Recent government airstrikes, meanwhile, show the limits of rebel control. Even if they hold the ground, they can do little about the government’s air force, which often bombards areas recently captured by the rebels, killing fighters and civilians alike.
The regime regularly accuses the rebels – whom it refers to as “terrorists” - of attacking civilians.
Also today, some of the fiercest fighting in a year was reported in Baba Amr, the neighbourhood in the central city of Homs that had stood for rebel defiance 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, and eventually retook the area.
Today rebels and regime troops clashed in Baba Amr, accompanied by army shelling and airstrikes, 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, assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a van carrying pre-school children, according to Syrian state TV and a government official. The attack killed one child and wounded nine, three seriously, said the official.
A video posted online from Raqqa city showed the dead bodies of seven people scattered in a street with destroyed buildings nearby.
The Observatory confirmed that strike and said at least seven others were killed in a separate air attack near the province’s eastern border.
Over the last year, Syria’s rebels have greatly expanded the territory they hold in northern Syria, mostly in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo that abut 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.
Raqqa is the first of Syria’s provincial capitals to fall completely under rebel control.
Rebel actions since taking the city have raised concerns about how they will administer the area.
A number of videos have surfaced in recent days that show dead government soldiers and security officials lying on the ground, their heads bearing gunshot wounds.
One video showed rebels driving the dead body of a military intelligence official around in the back of a pickup truck to show it off. At one point, they lay out his body in a street next to another body. Both have large holes in their heads.
Rights groups have reported extrajudicial killings of regime officials and troops following the capture of other areas, especially of pro-government militiamen known as “shabiha” whom rebels accuse of atrocities. Rebels groups in some areas have set up courts to try prisoners, though it is unclear whether they live up to international standards of due process.
Also today, the UN chief for refugees says the number of people fleeing Syria could increase by “two or three times” by the end of the year if the conflict continues.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told reporters in the Turkish capital, Ankara, that the international community should work toward ending the conflict.
“If the Syrian conflict will go on and on and on, there is an effective risk of an explosion into the Middle East,” he said, adding that it was in “the interest of everybody to stop this conflict before it is too late. ”
On March 6, the UN said the number of registered Syrian refugees had reached 1 million. Guterres also renewed a call for nations to support Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other countries sheltering refugees.
The UN says more than 70,000 people have been killed in the violence.