Syrian children play on an Syrian government army tank, left behind during fighting in mid July
Syrian children play on an Syrian government army tank, left behind during fighting in mid July 2012, in the northern Syria town of Azaz, on September 29. Huge photographs of burnt out tanks displayed on the walls of the police station in Azaz proudly proclaim the town's capture by Syrian rebels, but they conquered a community whose public buildings have been devastated. © Miguel Medina - AFP/File
Syrian children play on an Syrian government army tank, left behind during fighting in mid July
Marie Roudani, AFP
Last updated: September 30, 2012

Scorched earth freedom of Syrian rebel town

Huge photographs of burnt out tanks displayed on the walls of the police station in Azaz proudly proclaim the town's capture by Syrian rebels, but they conquered a community whose public buildings have been devastated, largely by their own arms.

School buildings lie flattened and the town's mosque is crushed under the debris of its own demolished twin minarets.

When the rebel Free Syrian Army routed government troops in mid-July, they dynamited all the defensive positions that had been used against them -- from the makeshift barracks in schoolyards to the sniper positions atop the towers once used for the Muslim call to prayer.

"Our strategy has been to completely destroy the buildings we had to force regime forces out to stop them ever coming back," said a rebel leader, who identified himself only as Najmeddin.

In July's fighting for the town, the government of President Bashar al-Assad deployed some 60 tanks and 20 armoured personnel carriers, and the rebels want no repetition. That is why they blew up the minarets, Najmeddin says.

The twin towers' pink and beige tiles are strewn amid the rubble of the mosque.

On one of the walls still standing, a huge poster has been put up, bearing the names of the townspeople killed by the army snipers positioned in their crow's nests during the fierce fighting for Aazaz.

A semblance of normality has since returned to the small market town of some 25,000 people several kilometres (a few miles) from the Turkish border.

The main battleground between government troops and the rebels has since shifted to the commercial capital of Aleppo, a metropolis of some 1.7 million 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the south.

The army has given up trying to hold the town with ground troops as fierce fighting rages in the larger prize to the south, although a burst water main from an air strike some days ago attests to the continuing threat.

The metre (more than three foot) deep crater that holed the pipe has deprived half of the town's remaining population of mains water.

Amid the rubble, shops have partially reopened and schoolchildren make their way to makeshift classrooms, but not all are happy with their newfound freedom.

"If you asked me to be president, I'd say no. We've lost our schools, our hospitals. Our country has taken a step backwards," says Mohammed Abu Ahmed, 46.

"It's been a month and a half that I've been living without power in a single room with my wife and six children.

"I no longer have any neighbours -- they're all dead. And so today I have been out on my own again in the streets trying to sweep up with this," he says, holding up a hand ravaged by severe burns to several fingers.

From the roof of the town's sole hospital, where the injured are taken, the nearby military airfield is plainly visible, still under the control of government forces.

On the ground are fighter jets and helicopter gunships, primed to strike at any moment.

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