A Free Syria Army fighter stands at an unofficial rebel camp in August 2012
A Free Syria Army fighter stands at an unofficial rebel camp in an olive grove near the Syrian-Turkish border in August 2012. Fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FAS) took the rocky heights above the large town of Al-Atarib, west of Syria's second city Aleppo in the north, three months ago from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Now they have their sights set on "Base 46." © Aris Messinis - AFP/File
A Free Syria Army fighter stands at an unofficial rebel camp in August 2012
Michel Moutot, AFP
Last updated: September 25, 2012

Syrian rebels prepare to blow up Base 46

The roar of the approaching fighter-bomber gets louder, so the rebels preparing to assault a major military base hide themselves indoors as others move cars and motorcycles under cover among the olive trees.

Fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FAS) took the rocky heights above the large town of Al-Atarib, west of Syria's second city Aleppo in the north, three months ago from the forces of President Bashar al-Assad.

Now they have their sights set on "Base 46."

They say they have the vital regime base two kilometres (more than a mile) away surrounded and have been attacking Assad's forces holed up there for the past three days.

They also say Base 46, inside which 1,000 regime soldiers are trapped, is a major military objective, the last link on the road to Aleppo, and that they will blow it up within several days.

Abu Sadeq, with his bushy black beard, green battledress and black desert boots, introduces himself as a rebel officer.

He waits until the sound of the warplane fades before declaring: "They're done for."

"They're well-armed in there -- they've got 13 tanks and multiple rocket launchers. But we are too many for them, and we've cut all the roads they could use to bring in reinforcements.

"Even if they try to send more armour in from Aleppo, we have booby traps everywhere. All the roads are mined. And we also have rocket-propelled grenades. If they come, we'll destroy them," Abu Sadeq says.

The rebels claim to have brought in at least 1,500 fighters from all across the region for this one crucial attack on Base 46. They are under the command of "general" Ahmad al-Fajj, himself a native of Al-Atarib.

There are around 300 rebels constantly on the front line, under fire from sharpshooters and artillery inside the base, and they rotate to the rear every eight hours for rest and recuperation.

Another officer who gives only his first name -- Hussein -- and says he commands the Ansar al-Haq ("Partisans of Justice") brigade, says: "The only thing they can do is use air power. So they do it, but that still won't save the base."

"They fire but hardly ever hit us," he adds, pointing to a crater five metres (yards) across between two olive trees at the foot of the hill near the road.

"They're firing at random on Al-Atarib, hitting houses and killing only civilians. Because they don't know where we are, and we keep on the move all the time. When we hear a MiG coming we hide, when it's a chopper we give it all we've got. But often they're flying too high."

His men drive an AFP correspondent to a place they say was destroyed in an air raid the night before, a two-storey house now flattened, reduced to a pile of rubble three metres high.

"There was a whole family in there -- four kids. They're all dead," sighs Abu Sadeq. "They fire at night if they see even a glimmer of light. We've even unscrewed the bulbs from the brake lights of our cars and bikes."

Just a few hundred people, maybe 1,000 at the most, remain of the 35,000 who lived in Al-Atarib before the war. Those who remain hide in corners, startled at the mere hint of the sound of a plane.

The poorest of the poor do not even have the money to pay for the truck ride that could take them to the border with Turkey to join the rest of the refugees.

Abu Sadeq's brother, another uniformed rebel, sits by the front of a small grocery shop, its metal shutters half pulled down. He nods with his head towards an old man at the end of the street.

The man is in a wheelchair, his legs horribly deformed.

"And him?" he asks. "What do you think'll happen to him?"

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