CILVEGOZU, Turkey – Rebel fighters raided a Syrian army outpost at a key border crossing with Turkey on Thursday in an attempt to seize control of the gate, but were forced to withdraw after coming under attack by military helicopters, a rebel spokesman said.
The dawn attack was the third time in 10 days rebels have tried to seize the Bab al-Hawa gate, a vital commercial crossing in northwestern Syria, opposite the Turkish Cilvegozu gate in Hatay province.
A Reuters reporter on the Turkish side of the border crossing said he could still hear intermittent gunfire on Thursday evening coming from the Syrian side and black smoke rising into the air 2-3 km (miles) from the border.
Ahmad Zaidan, spokesman for an opposition group called the Higher Council of the Revolution’s Leadership, said rebels were in charge of large areas around the border crossing and that they wanted to gain control of the gate itself.
He said the raid was also meant to provide an opportunity for opposition sympathizers among the government soldiers to defect. Most defections, he said, were pre-planned whereby sympathizers would know of an impending rebel attack.
“We withdrew because we didn’t have enough anti-aircraft missiles, and to preserve the lives of those sympathetic soldiers who weren’t able to defect,” Zaidan told Reuters by telephone from Hatay.
The rebels attacked the army garrison made up of some 200 troops but had to pull back when government helicopters were called in. The rebels had planned for 80 soldiers to defect but only 14 managed to escape, Zaidan said.
The border crossing, which is still under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, has been closed since the attack and around 40 Syrian and Saudi trucks lined up on the Turkish side were unable to cross.
While cross-border trade and traffic has been greatly reduced as violence inside Syria has increased, border gates along the 910 km (560 mile) Turkey-Syria border have largely remained open and vehicles are free to cross.
The border raid came as rebels clashed with troops loyal to Assad in Damascus and a day after a bomb attack on a security meeting in the Syrian capital killed three of the president’s closest allies.
Turkey, which has called on Assad to step down, is giving sanctuary to opposition members and fighters on its soil and is providing shelter to more than 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing violence at home.