Middle East

Syria crisis: Raqqa governor held by rebels 'as city falls'

Frame from amateur video purported to show Raqqa governor Hassan Jalili (right) alongside provincial Baath party chief Suleiman Suleiman
Image caption The governor (right) was captured after fierce fighting around his palace

Syrian rebels have captured the governor of the northern province of Raqqa after over-running most its capital city, activists say.

Amateur video said to be from Raqqa appeared to show Hassan Jalili and another senior ruling party official seated among jubilant armed fighters.

The takeover of Raqqa would mark a major gain for the rebels in their two-year fight against the regime.

Reports say clashes were continuing in parts of Raqqa, with more troops sent.

In the past rebels have often struggled to hold on to territory they have taken.

Pro-regime forces - including those at the provincial airport about 60km (40 miles) from Raqqa - remain a threat, fighters in the city said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, said after much of Raqqa fell to rebels, warplanes carried out two air raids on the city. There were reports of casualties.

SOHR director Rami Abdul-Rahman said fierce fighting was taking place around the intelligence building and other areas, and that some of Raqqa was still under government control, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Statue toppled

In video posted on the internet, a large number of purported government soldiers and pro-government gunmen are seen sitting on the ground, surrounded by rebels shouting "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest).

In other footage the governor of Raqqa, Hassan Jalili, is shown seated alongside the ruling Baath party's secretary general for Raqqa province, Suleiman Suleiman, also surrounded by rebels.

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Media captionUnverified amateur footage appears to show a statue of former President Hafez al-Assad being toppled

"All we want is to get rid of the regime," a voice is heard telling the two captives.

The SOHR described Mr Jalili's seizure as "the highest profile capture by rebels of a regime official".

According to the SOHR, a high-ranking state security officer was also taken captive by rebels, and a senior police official was killed.

The SOHR is one of the most prominent organisations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. The group says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.

The group said the jihadist al-Nusra Front were among the rebel groups which took part in fierce fighting against regime forces in the city.

There were scenes of jubilation in the central square, where residents pulled down a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, a rope tied around its neck. People then jumped on the fallen statue and hit it with their shoes.

Video footage purported to be from the square showed two explosions hitting shortly after the statue was toppled, causing casualties and sending people fleeing.

The cameraman is heard to say: "War plane shelling... God is greater than you, Bashar [al-Assad]...The injured have fallen."

Raqqa, situated on the Euphrates River near the Turkish border, has been a refuge for hundreds of thousands of Syrians who fled the violence in other parts of the country.

According to Reuters news agency, some residents had pleaded with rebels not to enter the city, fearing it would bring retribution from government forces.

"The fear now is that the regime will hit Scud missiles indiscriminately at Raqqa to punish the population," Nawaf al-Ali, Raqqa's representative in the opposition Syrian National Coalition, was quoted by the agency as saying.