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Syria Live Coverage: A Battle for Hama?

Fighting in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, on Monday

2120 GMT: This is an interesting video - it claims to have been leaked by "shabiha," or at least Assad military. This video reportedly shows artillery pieces firing on the city of Zabadani, the mountain city northwest of Damascus that has essentially been bombarded for many months with hardly any interruption:

Unfortunately, without a closeup of the men, or any dialogue to analyze, it's going to be hard to verify this claim.

2045 GMT: UPDATE - a reader (see comments) points out that this video appears to be from November 20th, and it appears to be taken in Darayya, not Mt. Kassioun.We're not sure why Ugarit news, which is typically reliable, made this mistake. Our original update is below:

Incredible video, reportedly taken today in Damascus - the mountain appears to be Mt. Kassioun (map), and the target East Ghouta. These could be GRAD rockets, but they could also be Type 63:

2020 GMT: On December 6th we reported that the rebels were making considerable gains near the Al-Safira military base in Aleppo (map). The problem - Al Safira could be, according to some sources, not only the largest chemical weapons depot in all of Syria, but perhaps the largest chemical weapons stockpile in the entire region.

Today, a series of videos suggest that heavy firepower is being brought down on the heads of the Assad military garrison there. This video shows a 120mm artillery piece reportedly hammering the base:

A rebel tank prepares to fire on the Assad position:

More videos show infantry, and mortar teams, preparing to attack. Yet others show regime airstrikes, trying to beat back the attack.

1959 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 104 people have been killed nationwide today:

33 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs; including 4 in Tal Menin, 20 in Daraa; including 5 who were field-executed in Refugee camp, 14 in Hama,in Homs; including 3 who were field-executed in Naqera,11 in Aleppo, 7 in Deir Ezzor, and 6 in Idlib.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1950 GMT: Joshua Landis has made a blog post about a jihadi group, Kataeb al-Muhajerin, that has posted pictures of a complete and fully functional SA-16 MANPADS surface to air missile system:

The catch - this group was apparently started by Swedish Jihadis, according to Landis:

Earlier, on November 21, a group of Swedish Islamists calling themselves Mujahedeen Fi Ash Sham (”Holy Warriors in the Levant”) had published a Swedish-language video statement calling for a ”jihad” against the Assad regime, and encouraging Swedish Muslims to join them in Syria. (English transcript.) This network seems to have been present in the Turkish-Syrian border region for at least a few months. On a Facebook page, one member of the group has claimed that it is comprised of some forty people, including many from the city of Gothenburg. This figure may be too high: SÄPO, the Swedish security service, has indicated that there are indeed some Swedish volunteers fighting in Syria, but seems to put their number well below forty.

Kataeb al-Muhajerin evolved out of this network, although it may also include other members.

1919 GMT: How have the rebels taken this much territory so quickly? The answer lies partially in the two-pronged threat of the insurgency I've described before. Until now, Hama has very much been "occupied" by the Assad military, but it has always been a hotbed of dissent. In the last 6-8 months, the insurgents have never gained a clear military advantage in Hama. Instead, many fighters from Hama traveled south to Homs or north to Idlib and Aleppo to try to establish opposition strongholds in these cities. However, during that entire time the populous of Hama, and its youth, remained defiant. In the last months Hama has become home to a "hit and run" insurgency. Ambushes would be trigger, quick skirmishes would be fought, but the insurgents never had the ability to actually take or hold territory. However, with the insurgents swinging down from Idlib province, and with the Assad regime paying more attention to Damascus, the time was right. As the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic brigades pushed south, they found a weakened regime that was not looking for a fight. In fact, while there have been nearly constant artillery attacks against towns across Hama province for two days, there have been few pitched battles. Instead, regime forces appear to have either pulled back, deserted, or simply vanished in the face of the oncoming rebel force.

This narrative is being echoed by prominent activists, and by many posting Youtube videos.

Hypothetically, Assad could be refocusing even more strength in Homs or Damascus. However, one has to wonder if the Assad soldiers there will fight with any more conviction than what we saw today in Hama.

1904 GMT: Multiple sources report that there are fierce clashes in the Tareeq Halab (Aleppo Street) district in northern Hama province. Though some fighting in Hama is not unusual, it appears that this is much heavier than normal, suggesting that rebel forces have actually entered the city from the north and are, in fact, already pushing into the 4th largest city in Syria. The Local Coordination Committee in Hama is also carrying the report of the fighting, as is the national LCC. There's also a report that the fighting is also happening further into the city, in the Hamidiyeh district:

View Syria - 2012 December 18 - EA Worldview in a larger map

If these last two reports hold true, the Syrian rebels have captured more than 50 square kilometers of contested land in just 48 hours, and are now poised to attack the most important cities remaining north of Damascus. If Hama were to fall, the rebels would have a direct route from Idlib to Homs, just another 43 kilometers to the south. Beyond that, there is not a major Assad stronghold until Damascus.

1840 GMT: Back from a break to find that there are even more claims that the rebels have taken additional territory in Hama province. The LCC posts this video, which they say shows insurgents in Taibet al Imam, even closer to Hama city than the other checkpoints (map):

In the last 18 minutes the LCC published an even more dramatic headline:

The Free Syrian Army seized all checkpoints in the northern suburbs of Hama and are under its control in the last 48 hours.

In fact, the LCC is now reporting fighting between regime forces and rebels inside neighborhoods in Hama city itself. We'll watch these very carefully.

1612 GMT: This video, uploaded by the Hama Revolutionists Command Council (SRGC), reportedly shows rebels in control of one of the checkpoints in Kafer Zita, Hama province (map), having also captured a tank (which may have been abandoned, as it appears stuck).

1604 GMT: According to the Local Coordination Committees, 81 people have been killed so far today nationwide:

25 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its Suburbs (including 4 in Tal Meneen), 17 in Daraa (including 5 who were field-executed in the refugees camp), 13 in Hama, 10 in Aleppo, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 6 in Homs (including 3 who were field-executed in Noqaira) and 4 in Idlib.

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

1548 GMT: The Guardian notes our own work on Hama province today, but adds an additional detail - according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Assad forces have also withdrawn from the towns of Hayaleen, Hasraya, and al-Sheikh Hadeed. As you can see from our map, this would mean that a significant portion of Hama province is now under rebel control:

View Syria - 2012 December 18 - EA Worldview in a larger map

We can't yet verify any of the towns beyond the ones we've stated earlier, but there are many reports that the rebels may be close to securing even more suburbs of Hama.

For instance, we're seeing many reports, including the video below, that Kafer Zita (map), another significant suburb of Hama, has also fallen to the rebels. Another video claims to show the market abandoned by the Assad forces which have occupied it for so long:

1517 GMT: In Damascus, there are no parades and no victory speeches, but there are plenty of explosions. The eastern suburbs in particular appear to have been heavily bombed by the Assad airforce today as the insurgents push closer and closer towards the capital. The LCC posts several examples. This was reportedly taken somewhere between Qaboun and Harasta (map):

This was reportedly in Hamoriyah, further to the east (map):

And this video was reportedly taken near the Yarmouk Camp (map), the Palestinian refugee camp where the heavy fighting took place yesterday. According to sources, it was bombed again today:

1455 GMT: Another town in FSA hands? Videos and activist reports claim to show insurgents in control of Kafranbaud (map), between Halfaya and the rebel lines in Idlib province.

If these reports are true, it would suggest that there is a major mop-up operation going on between Hama and Idlib. It would appear that Assad's front lines have literally disappeared in a matter of days in this area. But where are his forces now?

It's still too early to tell if there will be an Assad counterattack, or whether these gains will be permanent. In a matter of days, however, the FSA has advanced 40 kilometers south from Ma'arrat al Nouman and Jisr al Shughour, with barely a sign of regime resistance. It's possible that Assad simply does not value this largely rural area. However, with bases still besieged in Idlib province, and the noose closing on Aleppo, his forces in the north are now a very long ways away from any sort of reinforcement.

1440 GMT: Free Syrian Army 4x4s, equipped with anti-aircraft guns and other heavy weapons, take position outside the national hospital in Halfaya, a major suburb of Hama. Meanwhile, rebel tanks also take up position in the city, and all vestiges of the Assad regime are removed:

Halfaya is just 17 kilometers from Hama, a major suburb and one of the few towns the rebels would have to capture in order to directly threaten Syria's 4th largest city. If the town has fallen, and if the rebels advance further, this would be a sure sign of extreme weakness in the regime's military capabilities.

Furthermore, this is hardly the only suburb of Hama where heavy fighting is reported.

1428 GMT: A Russian news agency says that the country is sending several warships to its naval base in Tartous to prepare for a potential evacuation of Russian personnel in the war-torn country.

Russia's Interfax news agency quoted unnamed naval sources on Tuesday as saying that two assault ships, a tanker and an escort vessel had left a Baltic port for the Mediterranean Sea, where Russia has a port in Syria's coastal city of Tartus.

"They are heading to the Syrian coast to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens ... Preparations for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily classified," the Russian agency quoted the source as saying.

If true, this could be a sign that Russia, an ally which has helped arm Assad and support him on the international front, is now preparing for an abrupt collapse of the Assad regime.

1421 GMT: While attention has focused on the freeing of the NBC news team, details have emerged about the kidnapping of two Russians and an Italian.

The three were abducted on a roadway linking Homs to Tartous, where Russia maintains a small naval base. They worked at a steel mill owned by the Hmisho Trading Group, a Syrian firm, in the port city of Latakia. The kidnappers have contacted Hmisho and demanded a ransom.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei said “all the necessary steps are being undertaken both in Syria and other countries" to secure their release.

1417 GMT: The Strategic Research & Communication Centre, an activist news group, summarizes yesterday's rebel advances in both Hama province and in Aleppo:

Rebel commander, Colonel Ahmad Berry announced the beginning of a major offensive to ‘liberate” the province of Hama where dozens of rebel fighters and army soldiers were killed after heavy fighting that erupted in the provincial towns of Helfaya and Kaferzeita. The rebels seized control of the premises of the 35th brigade where they captured ten fully-equipped military tanks. They also kept advancing in Aleppo, taking control of two more air defence bases in the provincial towns of Hendarat and in the eastern suburb of Hos.

Reports of at least one air defense base near Aleppo was reported to us by our sources yesterday, though we're still sorting those reports. Also, while the "infantry school" did fall to insurgents this past weekend, there is confusion, sparked by some main-stream reporting, as to whether that school was part of the Hanano barracks or a larger facility outside the city. We'll work to button that confusion down.

However, the situation in Hama was the headline yesterday. Video evidence did suggest a major FSA push into Hama province. We'll have to monitor closely the insurgent advance in the region, but more fighting is reported today.

Last night an opposition Facebook page posted this summary of the current situation in Hama province.

The suburbs of Hama witnessed very heavy shelling, that was concentrated on Helfaya, al-Latamne, Tayebt al-Imam and Hayaleen. The villages of Kernaz, Kafarzeita and Kafranbooda were also shelled by regime forces near the Burhan and al-Sad checkpoints. Forces at the al-Shaikh Hadeed checkpoint withdrew after the FSA bombarded it with mortar shells. Forces at the Bab al-Taqa checkpoint withdrew as well. The Hamameyat, Kafarzeita and Tayebt al-Imam checkpoints were surrounded, and forces withdrew from the Hesraya checkpoint. All the battalions and brigades of the Hama countryside are now participating in the battle for liberation, including those from Kafranbooda, Kernaz, Kafarzeita, Helfaya, Tayebt al-Imam, Qal'at al-Madeeq, al-Ghab Plain, al-Latamne and Khattab.

Warplanes and helicopters continue to bombard the area with heavy artillery.

A call for help was sent out to the aid organizations in the central and northern parts of the country. To the National Council and the powers of the revolution. To those capable of offering help.

The suburbs of Hama, particularly the northern and western suburbs, are undergoing a fierce attack by regime forces. They are not only shelling the area, but blockaded all necessities from reaching the area, including flour and diesel. The lack of these products may result in a crisis in the area. There has been no flour or diesel for two days now. We ask anyone who can help to assist in bringing forth these much needed supplies as soon as possible.

1404 GMT: The Guardian has posted a video of Richard Engel and the NBC team while being held captive in Syria. According to their analysis, beyond the statements from Engel and his crew that his captors were shabiha, pro-regime militia, writing on the wall behind the NBC journalists indicates that their captives were pro-Assad Shia Muslims:

The text on the right wall has a typical Shia slogan, he writes. It says "There is no chivalrous man except 'Ali [a figure revered in Shiaism], and there is no sword except Dhu l-Fiqar ['Ali's mythical sword]."

The text on the left wall is a well-known pro-Assad slogan, and reads: "Assad, or we burn the whole country!"

This graffiti suggests the captors were pro-regime. The captives say they were kept near Ma'arrat Misrin, an area that has a small Shia but not Alawite community, Amin says.

1336 GMT: A collective sigh of relief in the journalistic community, and I suspect among many across the world. Richard Engel and his NBC crew give their first interview after they were kidnapped by pro-government "shabiha", held for 5 days, and eventually freed when rebel fighters attacked the kidnappers at a checkpoint:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Yesterday, news leaked into the Turkish press, and then beyond, that Engel and others were missing. According to a source, the information was leaked by a "fixer," despite NBC's efforts to keep the story quiet.

This is a clear reminder that even journalists working in familiar territory are never safe inside Syria.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us through the morning.

1155 GMT: A Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson has said that five ships and support vessels from Russia's Baltic Fleet will replace Black Sea Fleet ships that are currently operating in the Mediterranean.

The Baltic Fleet unit includes the escort vessel Yaroslav Mudry, the large assault ships Kaliningrad and Aleksandr Shabalin, the rescue towboat SB-921, and the tanker Lena.

The announcement has prompted speculation that the Russians may be planning to evacuate nationals from Syria.

1135 GMT: The Guardian has more details on the kidnapping and freeing of the NBC news team, including correspondent Richard Engel and Turkish journalist Aziz Akyavas:

After being abducted, they were put into the back of a truck and blindfolded before being transported to an unknown location, believed to be near the small town of Ma’arrat Misrin.

Throughout their captivity, they were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed, said the network.

Early yesterday, the prisoners were being moved to a new location when their captors ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. There was a confrontation and a firefight ensued.

Two of the captors were killed, while an unknown number of others escaped. None of the NBC crew suffered any injuries. They remained in Syria until this morning when they made their way to the border and re-entered Turkey. According to NBC, all were in good health.

1115 GMT: Back from an academic break to find confirmation from NBC News that its correspondent Richard Engel and news team, including Turkish journalist Aziz Akyavas, have been released after five days' captivity.

NBC said the captors were unidentified, but "were not believed to be loyal to the Assad regime".

0925 GMT: There are conflicting reports this morning about the state of the fighting in the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in southern Damascus.

Reuters was circulating a report last night that insurgents had taken the camp, but citing only one source --- a Palestinian activist who asserted, "All of the camp is under the control of the Free Syrian Army."

Other reports claim that the battles are ongoing. The Guardian's Martin Chulov writes: "Still fighting in Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus. Rebel groups control large parts, but battle not over."

The Palestinian ambassador to Syria, Mahmud al-Khalidi, has said that more than 95% of Yarmouk's residents have fled, many of them to United Nations-run schools.

Al-Khalidi said he had contacted the Syrian Foreign Ministry to request an end to airstrikes on Yarmouk, but it insisted insurgents must leave the camp first.

0910 GMT: Prashant Rao reports for AFP:

In a Turkish town across the border from Syria, a few dozen exiled schoolteachers have established a makeshift school for children displaced by their native country's brutal civil war.

The school, on the ground floor of a three-storey building in southwest Kilis, lacks all but the the most basic of supplies while all the teachers work for no pay in cramped classrooms where five children often squeeze into desks made for three.

And teachers and administrators note that many of the students appear to be suffering from psychological problems that they have no training in how to address.

But for the students who were missing months of education as a result of battles between Syrian government forces and rebels in cities like Aleppo in the country's north, the opening of the school three weeks ago was a welcome sight.

0810 GMT: Mahir Zeynalov updates on the situation of two journalists, both working for America's NBC News, who were reported missing on Monday --- Aziz Akyavaş has been freed, but there is no further news on Richard Engel:

0600 GMT: The headline for much of the media on Monday was the fighting in and around Yarmouk camp in southerern Damascus. Facing the erosion of its position in the Palestinian camp, the regime has begun aerial bombardment and is reportedly surrounding it with forces.

However, the shifting news may have been elsewhere. Last night EA's James Miller picked up on the insurgents' capture of weapons stocks, including anti-tank missiles, and regime outposts. He also noted an apparent advance by the Free Syria Army in Hama Province:

A series of videos from the FSA offensive against Halfaya, north of Hama city (map), indicates a major attack, as the FSA and other units stretch their front lines to the south. After weeks of ambushes, IED attacks, and raids on Assad's supply lines, it appears that the insurgents have moved into Hama Province with a vengeance.

As Miller notes, Hama is "one of the most important cities in Syria". It is the fourth-largest, it is on the lifeline between Aleppo and Homs, and it has a historic symbolism in this uprising. In 1982, the forces of President Assad's father Hafez overran Hama to put down an uprising, killing tens of thousands of people.

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