MAARET AL-NUMAN, Syria (AP) — Rebel fighters dressed in camouflage uniforms carefully loaded mortar rounds, then with a loud boom and a burst of smoke the shells zipped off in the direction of a nearby government army base.
“We are coming to get you, shabiha!” a man surrounded by rebel fighters shouted in an apparent reference to President Bashar Assad, using the term the opposition uses to refer to pro-government gunmen.
The shelling Tuesday, the latest salvo in an assault on the military facility, was part of a broader rebel effort to capture the remaining regime outposts in the largely opposition-held countryside of northern Syria.
Dramatic footage shot by The Associated Press showed a group of 45 young rebel fighters launching an attack on the military base, and others deploying improvised cannons and makeshift mortars. Some were also seen firing anti-aircraft weapons at attacking government helicopters.
The rebels captured the strategic city of Maaret al-Numan a year ago after systematically seizing the army’s outposts in the area, a major supply route linking the capital, Damascus, with the contested Idlib region and Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
But despite repeated assaults on the nearby military installation of Hamidiyeh, in the Wadi Deif area east of the city, the rebel fighters have failed to break through the heavily fortified base.
The latest operation began Monday, and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said many Libyan fighters were battling on the rebel side. It said regime fighter jets twice hit opposition-held areas near the city Tuesday and the clashes caused casualties, though it gave no specifics.
At least 10 government soldiers and one rebel fighter were killed on Monday, it said.
The fight for the base is part of the ongoing, broader struggle for control of northern Syria, where the opposition controls large swathes of territory captured from Assad’s troops.
Most of the northern countryside is in the hands of anti-Assad fighters, while the government is holding out in isolated military bases and inside major cities.
During the latest rebel assault Tuesday, one young rebel could be heard shouting above the mortar fire: “We are ready to move on our military operation, in order to remove the enemy check points and the army presence in Wadi Deif.”
“God is great and he is the one who protects us.”
Meanwhile, at The Hague, the chief of the global chemical weapons watchdog briefed member states on progress in the high-stakes mission to rid Syria of its poison gas stockpile.
Ahmet Uzumcu, director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, spoke to the group’s 41-nation Executive Council at the start of a four-day meeting as inspectors continued their mission.
Earlier Tuesday, teams of weapons inspectors were seen leaving their Damascus hotel in several U.N. vehicles. It was not clear where they were headed and what their task for the day was.
On Sunday, Syrian personnel working under the supervision of the chemical weapons watchdog team began destroying the country’s chemical arsenal and equipment used to produce it.
The mission to scrap Syria’s chemical weapons program stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on opposition-held suburbs of Damascus in which the U.N. has determined the nerve agent sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed, including many children. The U.S. and Western allies accuse the Syrian government of being responsible, while Damascus blames the rebels.
In neighboring Lebanon, meanwhile, the country’s main security service announced the capture of three Lebanese and Syrian militants it said were planning assassinations and bomb attacks in Lebanon.
Lebanon was hit by several explosions over the past weeks that killed scores of people.