BEIRUT — Syrian rebels seized much of the contested north-central city of Raqqa on Monday after days of heavy clashes with government forces, smashing a statue of President Bashar Assad’s father in the central square and occupying the governor’s palace, according to activist groups and videos uploaded to the Internet.
If the insurgents gain and retain control of Raqqa, capital of Raqqa Province, it could signify an important turn in the Syrian conflict. Raqqa, a strategic city on the Euphrates River, would be the first provincial capital completely taken over by the armed resistance.
For the government, the loss of Raqqa would diminish the prospects that Assad’s military, now fighting on several fronts, could retake a vast swath of northern and eastern Syria from the rebels.
The Raqqa news coincided with reports that more than 40 Syrian soldiers who had sought temporary safety in Iraq were killed Monday in an attack by unidentified gunmen as the Iraqi military was transporting the soldiers back to Syria in a bus convoy. At least seven Iraqis were also reported killed in the attack, which appeared to be the most serious spillover of violence into Iraq since the Syrian conflict began two years ago.
Ali al-Musawi, a spokesman for Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, accused ‘‘armed groups from the Iraqi and Syrian side’’ of coordinating the attack, which he described as an ambush. He said Iraq would deploy more security forces on the border. Middle East experts said such a move raised the risk that the Iraqis could become more directly enmeshed in the Syrian conflict, underscoring how it threatens to destabilize a wider swath of the region.
Rebel videos posted on YouTube about the Raqqa takeover included the destruction of a statue of Hafez al-Assad, the former president whose family’s four-decade control of the country is threatened by the insurgency. Footage showed anti-Assad activists pulling the statue down, its head smashing in the fall. The Local Coordination Committees, a network of anti-Assad activists in Syria, said the governor’s palace in Raqqa had been seized by insurgents. An activist reached by phone in Raqqa, Abu Muhammad, said he also believed that the palace had been ‘‘completely liberated.’’ The whereabouts of its loyalist occupants was not clear.
‘‘The only place still under control of the regime, in the entire province of Raqqa, is the military security building,’’ the activist said. ‘‘Clashes are raging there right now.’’
Raqqa had been under insurgent siege for days, but a breakthrough came Saturday when government forces abandoned the city’s central prison. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-Assad group with a network of observers inside Syria, said fighters from Al Nusra Front and other insurgent units seized the prison and released hundreds of inmates.
Earlier Monday, anti-Assad activists reported heavy fighting between rebels and government forces backed by tanks and warplanes in Homs, the central Syrian city that had been relatively quiet recently.
Details of the clashes were imprecise, but the Syrian Observatory said fighting flared in several neighborhoods of Homs after government forces launched an offensive to dislodge rebels Sunday.
An activist in Homs, contacted via Skype, who identified himself as Abu Bilal, said there had been a succession of ‘‘explosions that shook the entire city’’ Monday and clouds of black smoke blanketed some neighborhoods.
The Local Coordination Committees said there had been ‘‘fierce and continuous shelling from heavy artillery and rocket launchers’’ directed at insurgents in several areas.
The clashes seemed to shift attention from Aleppo, where fighting had swirled for days around the Khan al-Asal police academy. Aleppo is Syria’s most populous city and once regarded as its economic heart,
Both sides in the civil war, which started as a peaceful uprising almost two years ago and has claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, acknowledged relatively high death tolls in the fighting for Khan al-Asal.
The fighting coincided with new efforts by outsiders, including the United States, Britain, and their allies, to support the rebels with nonlethal aid. The British foreign secretary, William Hague, has hinted, however, that Britain might consider arming the insurgents — a stance that prompted Assad to say in an interview published Sunday that Britain was seeking to ‘‘militarize’’ the conflict.