Syrian rebels waged fierce battles with regime troops in a town along the Iraqi border on Thursday, capturing a string of security posts and the local police headquarters despite heavy government shelling and airstrikes by warplanes, activists said.
Taking full control of al-Bukamal, located in the eastern oil-rich province of Deir el-Zour and across the border from the Iraqi town of Qaim, would expand the rebel foothold along the frontier with Iraq. The border crossing point has been in rebel hands since last month, although government troops have remained in control of much of the town, activists say.
The opposition already controls a wide swath of territory along the border with Turkey in the north as well as pockets along the frontier with Jordan to the south and Lebanon to the west, which has proven key in ferrying people and material into and out of the country.
Rebels have been fighting troops for days in al-Bukamal, but over the past few hours have taken over several checkpoints, the main police station and the local command of the Political Security Directorate, one of Syria’s powerful intelligence agencies, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“There is an attempt to take full control al-Bukamal,” Mr. Abdul-Rahman said.
The Local Coordination Committees activist group said warplanes bombed al-Bukamal, but Mr. Abdul-Rahman said the jets were flying over the town and struck nearby areas, not the town itself.
Abu-Omar al-Deery, an activist in the provincial capital of Deir el-Zour, said by telephone that there are “fierce battles” in al-Bukamal and that “the Free Syrian Army is trying to liberate and clean the city.”
There was no immediate word on casualties.
The main battle fronts in the past month have been in the capital, Damascus, as well as the northern city of Aleppo, where regime forces have struggled to stamp out a rebel offensive that began last month and succeeded in capturing several neighbourhoods in the city of 3 million people.
In a report released on Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International said artillery and mortar fire and airstrikes by government forces in Aleppo are killing mostly civilians, including children. It said air and artillery strikes against residential neighbourhoods are indiscriminate attacks that seriously endanger civilians.
Amnesty said that during a 10-day fact-finding visit to Aleppo city in the first half of August, Amnesty investigated some 30 attacks in which more than 80 civilians, who were not directly participating in hostilities, were killed and many more were injured.
Amnesty said that among the dead were 10 members of one family, seven of them children. Their home was destroyed in two airstrikes on August 6, 2012. It said bodies of mostly young men, most of them handcuffed and shot in the head, have been frequently found near the local headquarters of the powerful Air Force Intelligence, which is in a government-controlled area.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed since Syria’s crisis erupted in March last year. The uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began with largely peaceful protests but has since morphed into a civil war that has spread to almost all areas of the country.
In the Damascus suburb of Daraya, the Local Coordination Committees activist group said government shelling killed a mother and her five children. It said the six were members of al-Sheik family and had fled from their hometown of Maadamiyeh to escape the violence.
An amateur video showed the five children draped in which shrouds with their faces showing during the funeral. The body of the mother was all covered.
Rebels blamed for journalist’s death
Meanwhile, in Damascus, a senior Syrian official has denied rebel claims that a Japanese journalist who died in the northern city of Aleppo this week was killed by government troops.
Veteran Japanese war correspondent Mika Yamamoto on Monday became the first foreign journalist to die in Aleppo since clashes between rebels and regime forces erupted there almost a month ago.
Rebels have said she was killed by regime forces. Japan’s Foreign Ministry said she was hit by gunfire while travelling with rebels from the Free Syrian Army.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad said on Thursday that journalists who behave in an “irresponsible” way should expect all kinds of possibilities.
Mr. Mekdad spoke to journalists in the Syrian capital.