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A military vehicle that belongs to the Free Syrian Army is seen in Al-Amariya district in Aleppo May 8, 2014. (AMMAR ABDULLAH/Reuters)
A military vehicle that belongs to the Free Syrian Army is seen in Al-Amariya district in Aleppo May 8, 2014. (AMMAR ABDULLAH/Reuters)

Syrian rebels retreat, but not before levelling army base Add to ...

With a gigantic explosion, Syrian rebels on Thursday levelled a historic hotel being used as an army base in the northern city of Aleppo by detonating bomb-packed tunnels beneath it, activists and militants said.

The blast near Aleppo’s medieval citadel, an imposing city landmark that was once swarming with tourists, killed an unknown number of soldiers. It turned the Carlton Hotel, known for its elegant architecture and proximity to the citadel, into a pile of rubble.

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The attack was a powerful statement that the rebels could still deal heavy blows elsewhere in Syria even as they withdrew from Homs, surrendering that city to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

In Homs, 150 kilometres south of Aleppo, army troops were poised to enter the city’s old quarters after hundreds of fighters complete their evacuation, which was suspended after gunmen in northern Syria prevented trucks carrying aid from entering two villages besieged by rebels. The aid delivery was part of the ceasefire agreement allowing rebels to leave Homs for rebel-held areas farther north.

An Associated Press journalist who visited Homs on Thursday reported massive destruction. Standing near the city’s main square, known as the Clock Square, the streets appeared almost apocalyptic. Even the trees were burnt.

Buildings along Dablan street were completely shattered with gaping holes, crumbled facades and flattened upper floors, testimony to what Syria’s third-largest city has endured in more than two years of fighting.

Rubbish, glass, debris, fallen trees and electricity poles blocked deserted roads.

“Words cannot describe what has happened here,” said Abdel Nasser Harfoush, a 58-year-old Homs resident who lost his business. He said he hoped the agreement will end the bloodshed and restore peace and stability to his city.

The withdrawal, in line with a ceasefire agreement reached last week following a fierce, two-year battle, is a major win for Mr. al-Assad.

Militarily, it solidifies the government’s hold on a swath of territory in central Syria, linking the capital, Damascus, with government strongholds along the coast and giving a staging ground to advance against rebel territory farther north.

Politically, gains on the ground boost Mr. al-Assad’s hold on power as he seeks to add a further claim of legitimacy in June 3 presidential elections, which Western powers and the opposition have dismissed as a sham.

But Thursday’s massive explosion in Aleppo was a powerful reminder that rebels – although weakened in the country’s centre and west – are still a potent force elsewhere, particularly in the north.

In a live broadcast from the site of blast, Syrian TV’s correspondent in Aleppo stood on a huge pile of rubble with twisted metal and palm trees sticking out, saying that the army had been using the building as a base and soldiers were positioned there at the time of the explosion. In the broadcast, the station did not mention casualties but said the rebels blew up the building by tunnelling underneath and planting explosives.

“They use tunnels like rats because they cannot face the Syrian Arab Army,” the correspondent said, adding that the explosion felt like an earthquake to those around Aleppo.

The Syrian government does not publicize its casualties in the civil war.

Aleppo has been carved up into opposition- and government-held areas since the rebels launched an offensive there in mid-2012, capturing territory along Syria’s northern border with Turkey. The bombing took place in a contested area where rebel and government territory almost crisscross.

The Islamic Front, Syria’s biggest rebel alliance, claimed responsibility for the attack. An Aleppo-based member of the Front’s media office, who goes by the name of Hussein Nasser, said the rebels spent days digging the nearly 100-metre-deep tunnel under the hotel and filled it with locally made bombs.

He added that the explosives, made up of chemical fertilizers, weighed about 20 tonnes.

“Today’s explosion was as powerful as two barrel bombs that the regime uses,” he said referring to the crude bombs used by government air strikes that usually knock down a building.

In recent months, government aircraft have relentlessly bombed rebel-held parts of the city. Opposition fighters have hit back, firing mortars shells into government-held areas. The rebels also have detonated car bombs in residential neighbourhoods, killing dozens of people.

Thursday’s attack was the second carried out by the Islamic Front against the Carlton. The first, allegedly also involving explosives-packed tunnels, caused a partial collapse of the building in February. The Front, an alliance of several Islamic groups fighting to topple Mr. al-Assad, appears to favour this technique and has used it in deadly attacks against government forces in Aleppo and Idlib provinces.

The latest bombing was much more powerful than the February attack and sent an enormous mushroom of grey smoke into the sky and over the ancient city, according to a video posted online by activists. The video appeared genuine, matching AP’s reporting on the blast.

Also Thursday, the head of the mission charged with destroying Syria’s chemical weapons said the last 16 containers of chemical agents awaiting transport out of the country are in a contested area near Damascus that is currently inaccessible.

Sigrid Kaag told reporters after briefing the UN Security Council that it’s not possible to arrange a ceasefire so authorities can get to the site where five containers of the most dangerous chemicals and 11 containers of less toxic chemicals – representing 8 per cent of Syria’s declared stockpile – are awaiting removal. Syria missed an April 27 deadline for all chemical agents to be removed or destroyed in the country.

Stepping up pressure on Syria, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned six Syrian officials and a Russian bank for their alleged support of Mr. al-Assad’s government. To date, the United States has imposed sanctions on nearly 200 individuals and entities, including the government of Syria, its central bank, and affiliated oil companies.

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