Syria rebels kill top ruling party official

Rifai, three bodyguards die in car bomb attack; rebels launch assault on army base

Gulf News

Dubai: Syrian rebels bombed the house of a top member of the country’s ruling Baath party in the south on Thursday, killing him and his three bodyguards, activists said.

The bombing took place in Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad began in March 2011.

Since then, rebels have targeted regime figures and military commanders in the capital, Damascus, and in other places around the country.

Hussain Rifai and his three bodyguards died after rebels detonated a car bomb hear his house in Daraa, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Observatory relies on reports from activists on the ground.

Syria state-run SANA news agency reported the bombing in Daraa. It said there were casualties in the blast but did not say if Rifai was among those killed.

Meanwhile, rebels on launched an assault on Wadi Daif, one of the few army bases in northwestern Syria still in the hands of loyalist forces, as they tightened their control of provinces bordering Turkey.

The assault came as Spain announced it had recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, boosting the opposition’s bid to win wide support for its campaign to topple Al Assad.

Several rebel brigades joined forces for the attack on the fortress-like base in Idlib province, while the army responded with heavy fire and shelling, the Observatory said.

Rebel fighters who control vast swathes of territory in north and north-western Syria have made significant gains in past days, including for the first time shooting down regime attack aircraft with surface-to-air missiles.

Analysts said the use by the rebels of the advanced weaponry marked a potential turning point in their prolonged war with Al Assad’s forces, in which more than 40,000 people have died according to a count by the Observatory.

As the battle for the army base raged, regime warplanes shelled rebel positions around Tishrin dam in northern Aleppo province, which was captured by the insurgents earlier in the week, the Observatory said.

Al Assad’s forces also launched air strikes on rebel positions in orchards extending from Kfar Sousa district in the southwest of Damascus province to Daraya, further away from the city limits, the watchdog said.

Since the end of July, the Syrian regime has used its aerial superiority to try to suppress the growing insurgency, bombing rebel-held areas across the country and causing high casualties.

The potential game changer came on Tuesday when insurgents downed an army helicopter with a ground-to-air missile in the northern province of Aleppo, with a warplane shot down with a similar weapon on Wednesday in the same area.

“It’s a turning point,” said Riad Kahwaji, expert at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).

“If the Syrian air force starts losing several aircraft every day, that will be a significant turning point because the regime will lose its superiority and will no longer be able to use its main means of delivering strong fire power effectively,” Kahwaji told AFP.

In southern Damascus, rockets struck areas between the rebel strongholds of Al Hajar Al Aswad and the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, the Observatory said.

The attacks came a day after simultaneous car bombings killed 54 civilians and wounded 120 others in a pro-regime neighbourhood of the town of Jaramana, just outside Damascus.

Jaramana has now been targeted by four such bomb attacks in three months.

It is home to predominantly Christians and Druze, an influential minority whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The regime of Al Assad, himself from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, insists it is fighting foreign-backed terrorists.

On the ropes by an increasingly daring rebellion, the regime is reducing its territorial ambitions to focus on Damascus, central Syria and Alawite bastions, as it digs in for a long war, analysts said.

In Madrid, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government said it had recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and had invited the head of the group, Ahmad Moaz Al Khatib, to visit Spain.

France on November 13 became the first Western state to recognise the newly formed Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people and it was swiftly joined by Britain.

Paris has also suggested arming opposition fighters.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines, meanwhile, said on Thursday that Damascus was the only government in the world to lay new landmines this year in its campaign against rebels.