BEIRUT — Intense military bombardment was reported Tuesday in the north-central Syrian city of Raqqah, where rebels have overrun much of the city and taken several high-ranking prisoners, including the provincial governor, according to opposition activists.
Opposition forces are trying to consolidate control of an entire city and a provincial capital for the first time, marking a potential milestone in the almost two-year effort to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. Insurgents have never before captured a major city.
Leading the assault on Raqqah, according to various reports, were several Islamist rebel factions, include Jabhat al Nusrah. Its role could put a group designated by the U.S. as a terrorist organization and Al Qaeda affiliate in full or partial control of major city.
U.S. officials say they are attempting to ensure that tens of millions of dollars in nonlethal U.S. aid being funneled to the Syrian opposition reaches “moderate” rebel factions. But officials acknowledge the difficulty of making sure exactly where the aid ends up amid the chaos of war-battered Syria, where scores of insurgent groups lack a central chain of command. Different bands of rebels often coordinate battle front operations.
“We need to make sure that our support strengthens the moderate opposition,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Tuesday at a news conference in Doha, Qatar.
Reports on Tuesday indicated that battles were continuing to rage on the streets of Raqqah, a city of more than 200,000 situated along the Euphrates River about 225 miles northeast of Damascus.
The Syrian air force attacked the state security and political intelligence buildings, both of which were overrun late Monday by rebels, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based pro-opposition group. Fierce clashes continued Tuesday as opposition forces fought to seize ammunition depots, the observatory said.
It was unclear, however, if the military was mounting a counteroffensive to take back the city. There was no immediate word on the numbers of casualties.
The pro-government daily Al Watan reported that all communications to the city had been cut amid “vicious battles” as thousands of gunmen descended on what the newspaper said had been one of Syria’s “calmest cities.” Raqqah has now become “a theater for terrorism,” the publication said.
“The gunmen are looting houses and public and private institutions in the midst of the state of chaos that engulfed the city,” the pro-regime newspaper said.
Tens of thousands of Syrians displaced by fighting had reportedly moved to Raqqah because, until recently, the relatively isolated region had escaped much of the violence that has struck other parts of Syria.
On Monday, opposition activists toppled a bronze statute of former leader Hafez Assad, father of the current president, according to amateur video uploaded to the Internet. People also ripped down posters of Bashar Assad and were shown stomping on his image.
Among the prisoners taken by rebels in Raqqah were provincial Gov. Hassan Jalili and Suleiman Suleiman, who headed the local branch of the ruling Baath Party, according to the observatory group. The pair would appear to be the highest-ranking government officials captured to date by Syrian rebels.
Special correspondent Bulos in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.