BEIRUT — Syrian jets bombed opposition-held buildings Tuesday in the strategic northern city of Raqqa, a day after rebels overran the onetime regime stronghold and captured its provincial governor. A toppled statue of President Bashar Assad's father was defaced with graffiti reading, "Tomorrow will be better."
The rebels continued to battle pockets of government troops in Raqqa, struggling to crush the remaining resistance in the city of 500,000 people on the Euphrates River.
If successful, it would be the first major city they would completely control in the civil war, and it would consolidate their recent gains in the northern Syrian towns along the historic river that runs from Turkey to Iraq.
"This is the beginning, and other Syrian cities will soon fall, one by one God willing," said Mustafa Othman, a Raqqa-based activist who spoke via Skype, with the sounds of gunfire crackling in the background.
But government airstrikes and intermittent clashes, particularly around two security buildings, raised doubt about whether the rebels would be able to maintain their hold on Raqqa, about 120 miles (195 kilometers) east of the commercial capital of Aleppo.
Rebels have been making headway in Raqqa province for weeks. Last month, they captured the country's largest dam west of the city and this week, they stormed its central prison.
On Monday, they swept regime forces from much of the provincial capital, prompting residents to pour into the main square and tear down a large bronze statue of Assad's late father and predecessor, Hafez.
Images of cheering rebels and residents bringing down the statue after tying a rope around its neck were reminiscent of the toppling of the statue of Iraqi dictator Saddam's Hussein in 2003 after U.S. troops stormed Baghdad, signaling the symbolic collapse of his regime.
The Syrians beat the felled statue of Hafez Assad with their shoes in a sign of disrespect, and at least one person hit it repeatedly with a hatchet. Others tore down a huge portrait of the current president.
In one photo from Raqqa, a man sat on the toppled statue which had been spray-painted with the Arabic phrase, "Tomorrow will be better."
It was a striking scene in a city once considered so loyal to the regime that in November 2011 – early in the 2-year-old uprising – Assad prayed at Raqqa's al-Nour mosque for the Muslim holiday of Eid in an apparent attempt to show that the regime was fully in control there.
Some activists posted the images of the fallen statue on Facebook and Twitter along with the words "Made in Syria," a reference to home-grown nature of the rebellion.
Activists said opposition fighters captured the governor of Raqqa province, Hassan Jalali, after clashes overnight near his office. The head of Assad's ruling Baath Party in the province, Salman al-Salman, also was in rebel custody.
Several key regime figures have defected to the rebels, but Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Jalali is the highest-ranking officials to be captured.
An amateur video posted online by activists from Raqqa appeared to show Jalali and Salman seated on chairs surrounded by a group of rebels.
"We just want to get rid of the regime," one of the fighters tells the pair in the video, which appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting from Raqqa.
According to the state-run news agency SANA, the 62-year-old Jalali was appointed Raqqa governor in September 2012.
An activist in the city who gave only his first name Amir for fear of retribution said the two were detained by Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group that the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization, as well as other fighters who entered the city Monday.
"They are detained in a location secured by al-Nusra and are being treated well," the activist said.
The group has emerged as one of the best organized and most effective forces on the opposition side, leading successful rebel assaults on military installations.
Fighting raged Tuesday near at least two government buildings, including the military intelligence and state security headquarters, the symbols of Assad's authoritarian rule in Syria.
The Observatory's Abdul-Rahman said "some of Raqqa is still under regime control."
Othman insisted Raqqa was completely liberated, but noted that the regime controlled the skies above the city, adding: "I don't know if I'll be alive in the next minute."
The government also remained in control of air bases outside the city, including Tabqa to the west, from which they launched warplanes to try to dislodge the rebels.
Several airstrikes caused an unspecified number of casualties, the Observatory said, adding that there also was heavy fighting near an ammunition depot on the northern edge of the city.
Abdul-Rahman said there were reports of more than 100 people killed in the past two days, but the casualty toll could not be independently confirmed.
Activists said 16 people were killed Tuesday in Raqqa, including 10 fighters who died in clashes with troops.
A Syrian government official in Damascus told the AP that the Syrian army raided "terrorist groupings" in Raqqa, causing many casualties. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Activists also reports that the regime was sending tanks and large numbers of ground troops to retake the city.
Syria's uprising began in March 2011 with protests of Assad's authoritarian rule. When the government cracked down on demonstrators, the opposition took up arms and the conflict turned into a full-blown civil war. The United Nations estimates that more than 70,000 people have been killed.
The relentless violence also has devastated many cities and forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians to seek refuge abroad.
The bloodshed has also has spilled over into neighboring countries several times, fanning fears of a regional conflict. On Monday, 48 Syrian soldiers who had crossed into Iraq to seek refuge from the rebels were killed when they were ambushed by gunmen, heightening concerns that the country could be drawn into Syria's crisis.
Two senior Iraqi officials, one military and the other in the intelligence services, said Tuesday that a team is investigating the attack in Iraq's western Anbar province. They said there is a military operation under way to hunt for the attackers.
A total of 13 Iraqi soldiers also were killed in the attack, including four who died in the hospital, the two officials said.
The bodies of the Syrians are still in Anbar province. Iraq's Defense Ministry has asked the Red Cross for help in repatriating them, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with reporters.
Iraq's Interior Ministry said its border troops repelled attempts by a group of gunmen trying to cross from Syria into Anbar province. A rocket launcher and a rifle were sized by the Iraqis in the operation, the ministry said Tuesday. It did not say if the gunmen were killed or captured.
In the Syrian capital, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad handed over to the Russian ambassador a man he said was a German journalist, identified as Billy Six, who had been detained after entering the country illegally. Mekdad did not say how Six ended up in regime hands.
Six appears to have been working for a German conservative weekly publication, Junge Freiheit, which posted numerous articles written by Six in Syria until late November.
The German Foreign Ministry confirmed that a German national missing for months was now at its embassy in Beirut.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut, Albert Aji in Damascus and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.
Also on HuffPost:
March 2011: 120
Thousands of Syrians rally to show their support for President Bashar al-Assad, who is facing unprecedented domestic pressure amid a wave of dissent, in Damascus on March 29 2011. (ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2011: 820
A protestor burns a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration after Friday prayers on April 29 2011 in Istanbul against the regime of al-Assad and the deadly crackdown on opposition protests. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
May 2011: 850
A veiled woman takes part in a protest calling on Syria's President Bashar Assad to step down, in front of the United Nations headquarters in Amman, on May 21 2011. (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)
June 2011: 1,000
Syrian refugees arrive to a makeshift camp in the northern city of Idlib, in Syria, on June 13 2011. (MUSTAFA OZER/AFP/Getty Images) <em><strong>CORRECTION:</strong> An earlier version of this caption placed the city of Idlib in Turkey. Idlib is in Syria. </em>
July 2011: 1,600
Thousands of pro-regime Syrians wave their national flag and portraits of President Bashar al-Assad during a rally in Damascus on July 17 2011. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
August 2011: More than 2,000
People hold pictures of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and fallen Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi as they take part in a demonstration gathering activists opposed to Syria's regime of President Bashar al-Assad on August 28 2011 at Taksim Square in Istanbul. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
September 2011: 2,700
A national flag hangs on a statue of Syria's late president Hafez al-Assad at the entrance of the flashpoint city of Homs on August 30 2011, as rights activists reported widespread anti-regime protests across Syria on the first day of the feast marking the end of Ramadan. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2011: 3,000
Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wave Syrian flags during a pro-regime rally in Damascus on October 12, 2011. Assad's regime is facing international pressure amid a violent crackdown on anti-government protests that broke out in March across Syria. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)
November 2011: More than 4,000
Syrian soldiers carry on November 26, 2011 the coffin of a comrade reportedly killed in an ambush by an armed group in the flashpoint Syrian city of Homs. (AFP/Getty Images)
December 2011: More than 5,000
Free Syrian Army captain identified as Ahmed al-Arabi sits in a safe house near Wadi Khaled on the Lebanese-Syrian border on December 30 2011. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2012: 7,100
Free Syrian Army fighters take position in a house on the Lebanese-Syrian border prior to a nighttime operation on January 2 2012. (Si Mitchell/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2012: 7,500
A Turkish journalist in Ankara, holds pictures of two journalists, French photojournalist Remi Ochlik and Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin, killed in an alleged rocket attack by Syrian regime forces against a makeshift opposition media center in the besieged city of Homs in Syria on February 22 2012. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)
March 2012: More than 8,000
A defected Syrian soldier, now a member of the Free Syrian Army, stands outside a mountain outpost near the village of Janudieh in the northern province of Idlib on March 20 2012. (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
April 2012: Close to 9,000
Syrians pray over the bodies of Syrian violence victims at a funeral in the northwestern town of Kafr Zeta on April 10, 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)
May 2012: More than 9,000
A general view shows the Syrian flag flying next to destruction in the Bab Amro neighbourhood of Homs on May 2 2012. (JOSEPH EID/AFP/GettyImages)
June 2012: 14,000
A Syrian man carries a wounded girl next to Red Crescent ambulances following an explosion that targeted a military bus near Qudssaya, a neighbourhood of the Syrian capital, on June 8, 2012. (AFP/GettyImages)
July 2012: 19,000
Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Rebels seized control of all of Syria's border crossings with Iraq on July 19. (BULENT KILIC/AFP/GettyImages)
August 2012: 23,000
A Syrian boy whose family has been displaced due to fighting between rebel fighterws and Syrian government forces is seen near the Syrian border with Turkey on August 25, 2012. (ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/GettyImages)
September 2012: 30,000
A Syrian man carrying grocery bags tries to dodge sniper fire as he runs through an alley near a checkpoint manned by the Free Syria Army in the northern city of Aleppo on September 14, 2012. (MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
October 2012: 36,000
A Syrian boy plays on a destroyed tank near the rubble of a mosque that was destroyed during fighting between Syrian rebels and regime forces in the northern city of Azaz on September 23, 2012. (MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/GettyImages)
November 2012: 40,000
A walnut tree stripped of its branches stands in the rubble of the Kalat al-Numan citadel, originally built during the Roman era some 2000-years-ago, after allegedly being bombed several times by the Syrian air force on November 18, 2012, in Maaret Al-Numan in southern Idlib province. (John Cantlie/AFP/Getty Images)
December 2012: 60,000
Smoke rises in the Hanano and Bustan al-Basha districts in the northern city of Aleppo on December 1, 2012 as fighting continues through the night. (Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)
January 2013: 65,000
A boy plays with a balloon in a Syrian refugees camp in Azaz, near the Turkish border, on January 10, 2013 after snow falls. (EDOUARD ELIAS/AFP/Getty Images)
February 2013: More than 70,000
Syrian Zakia Abdullah sits on the rubble of her house in the Tariq al-Bab district of the northern city of Aleppo on February 23, 2013. (Pablo Tosco/AFP/Getty Images)