BEIRUT – Syrian rebels firing mortars and rocket-propelled grenades captured an oilfield in the country's east on Sunday after three days of fierce fighting with government troops protecting the facility, activists said.
The head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said rebels overran the Al-Ward oilfield in the province of Deir el-Zour near the border with Iraq early Sunday. About 40 soldiers were guarding the facility that the rebels had been pounding for the past three days, he said, adding that opposition fighters also captured several regime troops.
Oil was a major source of revenue for the cash-strapped regime of President Bashar Assad before the European Union and the United States imposed an embargo on Syria's crude exports last year to punish the government for its brutal crackdown on protesters early on in the uprising.
"This field used to supply the regime with fuel for its tanks and our aim was to stop these supplies," Omar Abu Leila, an activist in Deir el-Zour, told The Associated Press by telephone. He said there was heavy fighting recently near the oil facility that is located just east of the city of Mayadin.
Both activists said the rebels shot down a fighter jet near the oil field Sunday. It was not clear if the warplane was taking part in fighting in the area.
Abu Leila said that the oilfield had been functioning up until shortly before the rebels seized it. It was not clear whether the facility was damaged in the fighting or sabotaged by regime forces.
Analysts say the rebels would not benefit economically from capturing the oil filed, although the opposition's latest conquest could reduce crude supplies available to the government.
"It's another blow to Assad in terms of ... the oil available to him," said Robin Mills, head of consulting at Manaar Energy Consulting & Project Management in Dubai. The capturing of Al Ward is largely symbolic, Mills added. The rebels face serious challenges getting much — if any — of the captured oil to the market since the main export pipeline along the Mediterranean coast remains under government control.
"I don't see how they can export the oil that way," Mills said. "And even if they could, I don't see that anyone would pick up that oil."
In the past year, Syrian officials have repeatedly accused rebel units of targeting the country's infrastructure, including blowing up oil and gas pipelines in the energy-rich northeast of the country.
Syria exported some 150,000 barrels of oil a day before European and U.S. imposed sanctions took effect. In 2010, it earned $4.4 billion by selling to EU countries alone.
The uprising against Assad started with peaceful demonstrations in March last year, but has since morphed into a bloody civil war. Activists say more than 36,000 people have been killed in 19 months of fighting.
Damascus claims the opposition is part of a foreign plot to destroy the country, and accuses rebels of being mercenaries of the West and oil-rich Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who have supplied the fighters with weapons.
On Sunday, state media said rebels detonated a car bomb near a major hotel in the capital, wounding several people. They also said the rebels — the government refers to them as terrorists — were behind the assassination of a leading member of the ruling Baath party in northeast Raqqa province.
The powerful car bomb shook the Dama Rose hotel and shattered much of its glass, according to an AP reporter at the scene. The hotel has been used in the past by U.N. observers visiting Syria, including the Damascus representative of the new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.
State-run SANA news agency said the bomb weighted around 50 kilograms (110 pounds) and went off about 500 meters (yards) from the army chief of staff's building.
The pro-government Ikhbariyeh TV said the explosives were planted under a car, parked in an outdoor lot near the country's main labor union building. At least 12 people, all union members, were wounded by shattered glass, the organization's chief, Mohammad Azouz, told the AP.
In Raqqa province, gunmen broke into the home of Baath party official Ismail al-Hamadeh at dawn and sprayed him with bullets as he slept, according to a SANA report.
Elsewhere in Syria, activists said the army clashed with rebels in the northern cities of Idlib and Aleppo, as well as in Damascus and the southern border town of Daraa, where the uprising began.
In the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and al-Hajira, the army and opposition fighters exchanged heavy fire, killing a handful of rebels, SANA said. The fiercest fighting took place in Harem on the edge of Idlib, where 30 civilians were killed allegedly in clashes between rebels and the army, the agency said.
The Observatory said the Syrian army launched air strikes on rebel hideouts in Idlib's suburbs, mainly the strategic city of Maaret al-Numan, which rebels captured three weeks ago. Their presence in the city, along the main highway between Damascus and Aleppo, has disrupted the military's main supply route to the northern front.
Associated Press writers Bassam Mroue in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed to this report.