Islamist militias under FSA close in on final regime stronghold in A-Raqqa

April 4, 2013

By Nuha Shabaan and Ahmed Kwider

0404RaqqaMAP2The Free Syrian Army and its Islamist allies closed in on Thursday to Division 17, the army’s formidable fighting force in the northern A-Raqqa province.

Regime soldiers “asked for a truce so that they can move their wounded soldiers,” said Zaid al-Fourati, an alias for the spokesman of the independent A-Raqqa Media Center. [Read the full interview about A-Raqqa here.] “We heard their SOS pleas on radio transmissions,” he said.

Al-Arabiya reported that members of Division 17 issued a call for help Wednesday night over their internal communications networks, urgently requesting food, water, electricity and medical assistance. A total of 80 soldiers were killed and 250 wounded in fighting with rebels, the network reported.

“The importance of this division is that it was the last safe place for the regime’s soldiers and officers who fled there from other [conquered] army posts around A-Raqqa,” said Abu Abel-Rahman Raqqwi, a citizen journalist covering the fighting. The division is blocked from four sides, he said, adding that “Ahrar a-Sham fighters started attacking it after a blockade lasting 18 days.”

The rebels, which reportedly include Jabhat a-Nusra in addition to Ahrar a-Sham, are also obtaining their information about the internal workings of the division through newly defected soldiers on the ground, al-Fourati and other activists said.

The two sides agreed to a temporary truce Wednesday night to move out an estimated 150 injured regime soldiers, al-Fourati said, adding that negotiations to conclude fighting broke down because regime officers refused to surrender.

Syrian state media did not issue any statement or reporting about A-Raqqa province on Thursday.

Video courtesy of the Raqqa Media Center

Division 17 occupies four square kilometers about two kilometers north of A-Raqqa city, the provincial capital. “It is the regime’s last stronghold in the northeast,” al-Fourati said.

The rebels, led by Jabhat a-Nusra, gained control of the governor’s palace earlier this month. One of the Islamist fighters told Orient television from the palace on March 4 that they captured the building by surrounding it completely and engaging in heavy fire. After negotiations between regime officials and the fighters, the building was turned over to the rebels.

In a similar pattern, activists in A-Raqqa told SAS News that the rebels have surrounded Division 17, and have been shooting down some of the helicopters attempting to drop food onto the base.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Thursday that “several shells landed on A-Raqqa city” overnight.