BEIRUT (Reuters) - The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) has moved its leadership for the first time from Turkey to parts of Syria that are now controlled by rebels, the group's commander-in-chief said on Saturday.
The FSA has been based in Turkey for more than a year as fighters have struggled to battle forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Although rebels now control large swathes of Syria, they face air and artillery attack from Assad's forces.
"The leadership of the FSA has entered the liberated areas (of Syria) after the success of the plan that the FSA has worked on with other battalions and units in order to safeguard the free areas," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said in a video statement.
A rebel source close to Asaad said that the colonel arrived in Syria two days ago. "The plan is that all the leadership of the FSA will be based in Syria soon, either in Idlib province or Aleppo province," the source told Reuters, adding that the move would be completed within two weeks.
The FSA is the most prominent of several armed groups fighting to overthrow Assad. In the video, posted on the web, the rebel colonel said his men would "fight side-by-side" with all groups and planned to take the capital Damascus soon.
Despite calling for Assad to step down, the West is wary of arming disparate rebel groups. Western diplomats say they are looking for signs that the rebels have a clear chain of command within Syria.
Turkey, which is housing more than 80,000 refugees from Syria, is facing internal pressure to distance itself from the conflict, and rebels are not always welcomed by residents.
Rebels shot down a fighter jet as it flew over the northern Syrian town of Atarib in Idlib province on Saturday, a witness said.
The witness, an independent journalist who asked to remain anonymous, said rebel fighters were attacking a military base near the town when the jet flew over and rebels shot it down with anti-aircraft guns.
Rebels have previously brought down several government planes using outdated anti-aircraft machine guns welded to pickup trucks.
Activists say more than 27,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the 18-month-old revolt in Syria.
In Damascus, the army has been conducting raids of southern suburbs over the past few days after driving out most rebel fighters. Black smoke rose from the suburb of Hajar al-Aswad on Saturday and residents said their houses had been set ablaze by security forces.
Outside the Palestine Hospital in Hajar al-Aswad, unidentified bodies were lain out for people to claim on Saturday. Twenty eight bodies remained in the afternoon but hospital workers said they had put out more than 60. One victim appeared to be about 60 years old, suggesting the dead were not all rebel fighters.
In another suburb, Jobar, amateur footage showed the bodies of seven men who activists said were executed by pro-Assad militia. Four of the bodies appeared to be badly burned.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said on Friday that Syrian security forces had attacked the home of a cameraman for Shaam News Network, a Syrian citizen news organisation, killing him and three of his friends in the central city of Hama on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny; Editing by Pravin Char)
Updated Date: Sep 22, 2012 23:15 PM