Jubilation as rebels force Assad troops to flee base

Special Report by Kim Sengupta in Al-Bab, Aleppo Province

Al-Bab

Three of the bodies were stuffed in a meat refrigerator which had been without power for over 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 break out by the troops, abandoning their camp early yesterday, 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 suburb of Al-Bab removed one of the main obstacles to reinforcement and supplies desperately needed in the city.

Inside Aleppo, rebel fighters appeared 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 in Bab al-Nasr, Bab al-Hadid and the Old City.

Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi of the opposition's Free Syria Army (FSA) claimed: "We have destroyed eight tanks and some armoured vehicles and around a hundred 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, the exiled head of the Syrian National Council (SNC) opposition alliance, called for foreign powers to arms 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.

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

The retreat of the regime forces from Al-Bab has provided an element of protection for the town, which has been pounded by shelling and air strikes. Residents celebrated their deliverance; large crowds made their way to the former agricultural school which had been commandeered, to gaze at the hastily abandoned meals, uniforms discarded by soldiers who had changed into civilian clothes in an effort to escape if their convoy was halted by ambush. The departure of the troops did not bring an immediate end to attacks.

Captured soldiers had said that, as well as the bodies, some injured had been left behind by the military. As opposition officials, accompanied by The Independent, went to look for them, a warplane which had been overhead opened up with machine-gun and cannon fire into the camp. Later it fired a missile into a residential area, injuring three people. "I wish I found some anti-aircraft missiles among these, I would love to shoot down that damn plane before more people are killed, " said Abu Osaid, an FSA officer, as he surveyed the array of weapons left by the enemy: machine-guns, mortar and rocket-propelled grenade rounds, a rifle, body armour and bucketloads of ammunition.

Now some of these can be sent to Aleppo along with volunteers from 1,200 revolutionary fighters in al-Bab and surrounding areas. Major Yusuf al-Hadeed, who commands all but a handful of them, said: "We already have men fighting in Aleppo and I know that many more want to join them. We have always said that we would need to take care of this military base first and then we will go to Aleppo. Obviously we need to reinforce the fighters there, we know the regime is doing the same, but they are not finding it as easy as they thought." The force which left Al-Bab, around 130 men, along with three tanks and a small number of armoured personnel carriers had tried to head into Aleppo, but had to divert after coming under fire.

Not all the regime troops managed to get away – around 20 were captured. "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. The officers had given us no leadership, they just told us to save ourselves if we could." The detainees said they had not been ill-treated, but felt apprehensive about the future. They will face trial, the revolutionaries have stated, although what the precise charges will be remain unclear. The soldiers, who were all Sunnis, blamed the officers at the camp, who happened to be from the Alawite community from which the regime is drawn, for responsibility for any abuse.

Their rebel jailers were unimpressed. " You," said one, pointing at 19-year-old Mohammed Mussa Shibli, "are from Al-Bab, you were firing on your own people, civilians, there is no one to blame for that but yourself." Mustapha Agel recognised another soldier as one who had fired at a mosque where he had gone to pray with his elderly mother: "You will face judgement for all you have done... you will not get away from justice."

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