By ZEINA KARAM
In this undated photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, an 84-year-old cleric known to all Syrians as a religious scholar, speaks at a press conference. Al-Buti, a top Sunni Muslim preacher and longtime supporter of President Bashar Assad was killed in a suicide bombing in the Eman Mosque, at the Mazraa district, in Damascus, Syria, Thursday, March 21, 2013, state TV reported . (AP Photo/SANA)
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels on Saturday seized a major air defense base in a strategic region of southern Syria near the Jordanian border in the latest battlefield triumph for fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad, activists said.
Fighters with a rebel group active in the south stormed and seized control of the air defense base used by the 38th Division after a 16-day siege, according to a statement posted on websites of the group known as the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.
The base near the village of Saida is situated along the international highway linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with Jordan to the south.
Fighting in Syria’s southern provinces bordering Jordan and Israel has increased sharply in the past few days. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of people, mostly opposition fighters, were killed in heavy clashes this week in the Quneitra region along the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights.
The Britain-based group, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said it had documented the deaths of 35 opposition fighters and the loss of contact with more than 20 others believed to have died in the fighting. Dozens of others were wounded, the group said.
The fighting in the area intensified midweek after rebels seized a village and parts of other villages, closing in on the strategic plateau that Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.
If the rebels take over the Quneitra region, it will bring radical Islamic militants to a front line with Israeli troops. The rebel force comprises dozens of groups, including the powerful al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, which the Obama administration labels a terrorist organization.
The Observatory said al-Nusra was among fighters who seized the air defense base in Daraa province. Both the rebels and the observatory reported that the opposition fighters killed the base commander.
In Damascus, supporters of Assad gathered in downtown amid tight security for the funeral of one of Syria’s best-known clerics who was assassinated in a brazen mosque bombing earlier this week.
Security forces sealed off all roads leading to the eighth century Omayyad Mosque where the funeral for Sheik Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti, an 84-year-old pro-government cleric, was held.
Al-Buti, his grandson and 48 others were killed Thursday when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a mosque where al-Buti was giving a religious lesson.
His assassination was a blow to Assad, who vowed Friday to avenge his death, saying he would “purge” the country of the militants behind the attack in the heart of the capital.
Both Assad and the rebels seeking to topple him have blamed each other for the bombing at the mosque.
Al-Buti, the most prominent religious figure killed so far in the 2-year-old conflict, had supported the regime since the early days of Assad’s father and predecessor, the late President Hafez Assad, providing legitimacy to their rule. Sunnis are the majority sect in Syria while Assad is from the minority Alawite sect — an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Mourners carried al-Buti and his grandson’s coffins, draped in white cloth, on their shoulders amid shouts of “God is Great.”
Al-Buti was imam of the Omayyad Mosque, a landmark in Damascus. Church bells tolls and mosque minarets in the ancient city blared “God is Great” during the funeral procession.
Syrian state TV said Assad was being represented at the funeral by one of his cabinet ministers.
Al-Buti was being buried in a courtyard at the rear of the mosque near the tomb of Saladin, a medieval Muslim ruler.
In a show of support, a delegation from the Lebanese Shiite Muslim Hezbollah group, a staunch ally of Assad, drove to Damascus for the funeral. A delegation from Iran was also present.
“We will continue on the same path,” said Sheik Mohammed Yazbeck, a member Hezbollah’s highest decision-making body, the Shura Council. “We will return the blow to the enemies of Syria and the enemies of the nation,” he added.
Associated Press Writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus.