Syrian rebels seize base on Damascus outskirts

Syrian rebels seize the nearest military base to its capital, which belonged to an army battalion.

Free Syrian Army opposition fighters battle government security forces during the siege of the Shaar district police station in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Picture: AFP.

BEIRUT/AMMAN - Syrian rebels said they had seized the headquarters of an army battalion near the southern gate of Damascus on Monday, the nearest military base to the capital reported to have fallen to opposition fighters in a 20-month revolt.

Activists said the Syrian army had attacked southern districts of Damascus with shelling and rocket fire all day to try to stop the rebels seizing the base, in some of the heaviest bombardment of the capital.

"Multiple rocket launchers are just making huge, random destruction," said Rami al-Sayyed of the Syrian Media Centre, an opposition organisation monitoring the crackdown by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

The Islamist rebel groups Ansar al-Islam and Jund Allah Brigades said in a statement that they had taken the Air Defence Battalion base near Hajar al-Aswad after four days of fighting.

The district had been home to thousands of refugees from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. These were at the forefront of the movement against Assad's autocratic rule at the beginning of a revolt that has now turned into a civil war, in which activists say 38,000 people have been killed.

Activists said all the residents had fled under the bombardment.

Video footage showed rebels walking through the site, past destroyed anti-aircraft guns, and one commander saying on a walkie-talkie: "We have completely seized the compound."

Louay al-Dimashki, an opposition activist who said he had documented the fall of the base on video, said the rebels had targeted the compound with mortars then attacked in small groups, killing 14 loyalist troops and taking 35 prisoner.

"The fighters are taking whatever ammunition and weapons they can. They cannot hold on to the base because the regime will hit them from the air," Dimashki said by phone.

Independent verification of the reports was not possible because Syria severely restricts the access of foreign media.

Rebels have captured several army positions in outlying regions in the last week, including a Special Forces base near the northern city of Aleppo and a small military airport in the east, on the border with Iraq.