Syrian rebels seized a second of the three main border crossings between Iraq and Syria, after keeping control of another despite heavy shelling by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Iraqi officials told AFP.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of of the Yaribiyah crossing, known in Iraq as Rabiyah, on Saturday evening and raised their flag, while officials added that Syrian refugees had tried to enter Iraq but Baghdad ordered its security forces not to allow them to cross into the country.
“At 5:00 pm (1400 GMT), some gunmen took control of the Yaribiyah crossing and they were informed that the crossing is now in the hands of the Free Syrian Army,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of the Iraqi province of Nineveh, referring to the Rabiyah crossing by its Syrian name.
He told AFP that because the official working hours of the crossing ended at 4:00 pm, Iraqi officials had already closed their side of the border when it was taken over by Syrian rebels.
“But starting tomorrow, only Iraqis will be allowed to enter from Syria to Iraq,” he said.
“We don’t know the nature of the side that we are dealing with and until then, we have to wait and see, and we will only give permission to Iraqis to cross the border from Syria to Iraq.”
Iraqi border guards First Lieutenant Mohammed Khalaf al-Shammari, stationed on the Iraqi side of the crossing, told AFP that rebels “raised the flag of the Free Syrian Army and tore up pictures of (President) Bashar al-Assad.”
Shammari said there was little movement on the Syrian side.
Deputy Interior Minister Adnan al-Assadi said Albu Kamal and Rabiyah were under the control of Syrian rebels. He had said on Thursday that all three crossings were under their control.
Albu Kamal is the Syrian name of the crossing known in Iraq as Al-Qaim, which lies 340 kilometres (210 miles) west of Baghdad in Anbar province.
Syrian rebels have held it since Thursday, and despite government forces having heavily shelled it on Friday night, it remained in their control on Saturday.
And at Al-Waleed, along the southern edge of the 600-kilometre (375-mile) border between the two countries, 150 Syrian families tried to cross into Iraq but were not allowed.
“Iraqi authorities did not let them in, because there are official orders to not receive any refugees,” Iraqi border police Captain Ziad al-Rawi said.
He added: “There are Iraqi families on the border now from the Syrian side, but they do not have Iraqi passports, they lost them because of the violence and looting that happened there.”
“Iraqi authorities cannot let them in because there are orders not to let anyone come in without documents.”
Iraq has appealed for its citizens to return home from Syria in the face of worsening violence there, but government spokesman Ali Dabbagh said on Friday that moving Iraqis by land in Syria was “not safe”.
Dabbagh estimated on Thursday that around 100,000 to 200,000 Iraqis still remained inside Syria. He said around 1,000 Iraqis had returned to the country by plane from Syria, and a further 1,500 were waiting at Damascus airport.
The FSA on Saturday also tried to overrun the Nassib border post with Jordan but were repulsed by Syrian government troops, a Jordanian security official told AFP.
Along the Turkish border, dozens of Turkish truck drivers accused FSA rebels of having burned and looted their lorries as they captured Syria’s Bab al-Hawa post.