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People tearing down a huge poster of President Bashar Assad and hitting it with their shoes in Raqqa which has been seized by rebel forces
People tearing down a huge poster of President Bashar Assad and hitting it with their shoes in Raqqa which has been seized by rebel forces
Image: AP Photo/Coordination Committee In Kafr Susa

Syrian conflict spills into Iraq as dozens killed in ambush

In a separate development rebel forces have seized parts of Raqqa city, the capital of the northern province of Raqqa, in what could be a significant development.
Mar 5th 2013, 9:41 AM 2,502 7

DOZENS OF SYRIAN soldiers who had crossed into Iraq for refuge were ambushed yesterdat with bombs, gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades in an attack that killed 48 of them and heightened concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria’s civil war.

The fact that the soldiers were on Iraqi soil at all raises questions about Baghdad’s apparent willingness to quietly aid the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The well-coordinated attack, which Iraqi officials blamed on Al Qaeda’s Iraq arm, also suggests possible coordination between the militant group and its ideological allies in Syria who rank among the rebels’ most potent fighters.

Iraqi officials said the Syrians had sought refuge through the Rabiya border crossing in northern Iraq during recent clashes with rebels and were being escorted back home through a different crossing farther south when the ambush occurred.

Their convoy was struck near Akashat, not far from the Syrian border.

Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister, provided the death toll and said nine Iraqi soldiers were also killed. The Syrians had been disarmed and included some who were wounded, he told The Associated Press.

He said the soldiers had been allowed into Iraq only on humanitarian grounds and insisted that Baghdad was not picking sides in the Syrian conflict.

“We do not want more soldiers to cross our borders and we do not want to be part of the problem,” al-Moussawi said. “We do not support any group against the other in Syria.”

‘Firm and tough’

The Iraqi Defence Ministry said 10 additional Syrians were wounded in the assault. In a statement, it warned all parties in the Syrian war against bringing the fight into Iraq, saying its response will be “firm and tough.”

Iraqi officials who provided details of the attack described a carefully orchestrated assault on the Syrians’ convoy, with a senior military intelligence official saying the attackers appeared to have been tipped off ahead of time.

He and another Iraqi official, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to release the information, said it was unlikely that Syrian rebels had managed to cross into Iraq to carry out the attack.

“This attack bears the hallmarks of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization,” said Jassim al-Halbousi, provincial council member in Anbar, the restive western region where the attack happened.

“The borders should be secured at the highest level of alert.”

Separately, activists say Syrian rebels have captured the governor of northern Raqqa province as opposition fighters try to overrun the last remaining pockets of loyalist forces in the provincial capital.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says rebels captured Hassan Jalili after clashes overnight near the governor’s mansion in Raqqa city.

Syrian rebels have pushed government troops from most of the provincial capital, although the Observatory says clashes are still taking place in several places in the city.

If the opposition were to seize control of all of Raqqa, it would mark the first time an entire city has fallen into rebel hands.

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