Kim Sengupta : Capture of military base and weaponry gives rebels breathing space in battle for Aleppo


Three of the bodies were stuffed in a meat refrigerator which had been without power for more than a week; one had his hands tied in what looked like an execution position, another had almost made it to the door to escape when he was shot through the chest. These were soldiers of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's regime, killed as they tried to flee from a base under siege from rebel fighters.

The breakout by the troops, abandoning their camp early yesterday morning, gave precious advantage to the revolutionary fighters in Aleppo being battered by artillery, tanks and helicopter-gunships for the past 48 hours. The fall of the camp in the satellite town of Al-Bab removed one of the main obstacles to reinforcement and supplies desperately needed in the city.

Inside Aleppo, rebel fighters appeared yesterday to have partly stemmed the advances by regime forces after falling back from the first wave of assaults directed against their positions. The response was more shelling in Salaheddin district, in the south-west, which had been controlled by the opposition, and fresh clashes broke out in Bab al-Nasr, Bab al-Hadid and the Old City.

Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi of the opposition's Free Syrian Army (FSA) claimed: "We have destroyed eight tanks and some armoured vehicles and around 100 soldiers. But there have been a lot of civilians killed, mainly due to air attacks. We want the UN to impose a no-fly zone. We don't need ground intervention; brother fighters will be going to Aleppo. We need protection for civilians."

Abdelbasset Sida, pictured, the exiled head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition alliance, called for foreign powers to arm the rebels with heavy weapons to fight Assad's "killing machine", which claimed victory in a fierce battle for the Syrian capital Damascus yesterday. He said the SNC would also soon begin talks on forming a transitional government.

But Iran's foreign minister, at a joint press conference with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moualem, described the idea of a managed transition of power as an "illusion". Mr al-Moualem said Damascus was still committed to the Kofi Annan-backed peace plan.

The retreat of the regime forces from the Al-Bab base has provided an element of protection for the town, which has been relentlessly pounded by shelling and air strikes called in by the base – salvoes sent seemingly randomly into residential areas, killing and maiming, driving others from their homes.

Residents celebrated their deliverance; large crowds made their way to the former agricultural school which had been commandeered, to gaze at hastily abandoned meals, at uniforms discarded by soldiers who had changed into civilian clothes in an effort to escape unnoticed if their convoy was ambushed. Later, liberated tanks and artillery were driven through the streets, to prolonged cheering.

Many of the weapons left behind in Al-Bab can be sent to Aleppo, along with volunteers to join the fighting. Major Yusuf al-Hadeed said: "We already have men fighting in Aleppo and I know that many more want to join them."

Not all the troops managed to get away - around 20 were captured and are now being held by the revolutionaries. "We were woken up at three in the morning and told to hurry, we were leaving the camp" said Sergeant Alla Abu Warda, one of the prisoners. "The officers were in the tanks and armoured cars in the front. We were in pick-ups right at the back and that is the reason we got caught. The officers had given us no leadership all the time we were getting attacked. They just told us to save ourselves if we could."