Last updated: 5 November, 2012

Syrian rebels seize oilfield for the first time

Rebels seized a major oilfield and shot down a warplane in eastern Syria Sunday, a watchdog said, notching up new battlefield successes even as the opposition met in Qatar under US pressure for a makeover.

The rebel advances in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor came as warplanes pounded their positions around Damascus and in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib.

State media also reported that a blast near the Dama Rose Hotel in the heart of the capital wounded 11 civilians. It blamed “terrorists,” the regime’s term for armed rebels.

The hotel hosted UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi during his visits to Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the seizure of the oilfield was an opposition first since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted in March 2011.

“Rebels in the Jaafar Tayyar Brigade took control of Al-Ward oilfield, east of the town of Mayadin, after a siege that lasted several days,” it said.

“This is the first time the rebels have taken control of an oilfield,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The fighting began at dawn and lasted several hours, said Abdel Rahman, adding 40 soldiers were either killed, wounded or captured.

The Observatory later said rebels in Deir Ezzor had shot down a warplane, with initial reports indicating the pilot had been captured.

Fighting also erupted near a political intelligence office in Damascus province, the Observatory said, adding warplanes later carried out three raids on the Ghuta region northeast of the capital.

To the south of Damascus, eight civilians were killed by mortar fire in the Yarmuk Palestinian camp, in clashes between the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and rebels, the Observatory said.

An AFP correspondent in Aleppo province reported three air strikes in close succession on the town of Al-Bab, with witnesses saying there were at least four fatalities.

One was 42-year-old engineer Adnan Hamza who had left home in the morning to chair a civil council meeting and never saw his wife and three children again.

The Observatory gave an updated toll of at least 134 dead — 66 civilians, 41 soldiers and 27 rebels — nationwide on Sunday.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, meanwhile, said it has delivered humanitarian aid to the beleaguered districts of Khaldiyeh and Hamidiyeh in the central city of Homs for the first time in months.

The escalating conflict added urgency to a meeting of the Syrian National Council in Qatar, with the United States reportedly pressing for a new umbrella organisation to unite the country’s fractured regime opposition.

According to the reports, which emerged after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged the SNC was not representative, long-time dissident Riad Seif is touted as the potential head of a new government-in-exile dubbed the Syrian National Initiative.

But as the Doha meeting began, Seif denied planning to head such a government.

“I shall not be a candidate to lead a government in exile… I am 66 and have health problems,” he told reporters.

SNC chief Abdel Basset Sayda denounced what he called “efforts to bypass the SNC and numerous attempts to find substitutes” for the group, though he recognised that some criticisms of it are “founded.”

The SNC lashed out on Friday at alleged US interference, accusing Washington of undermining the revolt and “sowing the seeds of division” by seeking its overhaul.

Clinton has called the SNC unrepresentative of on-the-ground opposition forces and saying it “can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition.”

Sayda also argued military action against the regime must be “organised and unified,” so various military groups battling the regime can form the “core of the next Syrian army.”

On the diplomatic front, French President Francois Hollande visited Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov flew to Cairo, with Syria topping the agenda for both.

Lavrov met Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi, and both said afterwards that they had agreed on the need to move forward.

Israel’s armed forces chief Benny Gantz said meanwhile his country could become involved in the conflict, as fighting raged on the Golan Heights.

“This is a Syrian affair that could turn into our affair,” the army’s website quoted him as saying.

The Observatory says more than 36,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad’s rule broke out in March 2011, first as a protest movement inspired by the Arab Spring and then as an armed rebellion.