A rebel fighter burns a Syrian flag
A rebel fighter burns a Syrian flag found in a building that belonged to Syrian government forces in the northern city of Aleppo on November 21, 2013. Photo by AFP
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Islamist rebels led by Al-Qaida-linked fighters seized the largest oil field in eastern Syria on Saturday, activists said, a raid which would cut off President Bashar Assad's access to almost all local crude reserves.

There was no immediate comment from the government. Losing the al-Omar oil field would mean Assad's forces would be almost completely reliant on imported oil in their highly mechanized military campaign to put down a 2-1/2-year uprising.

It was not yet clear how much the loss of the field in Deir al-Zor province would affect Assad's government or battlefield abilities. But the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it would prove a major blow.

"Now, nearly all of Syria's usable oil reserves are in the hands of the Nusra Front and other Islamist units," said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory. "The regime's neck is now in Nusra's hands."

Until the reported insurgent capture of the field, a pipeline transporting the crude to central Syria for refinement had still been working despite the civil war.

Assad is also believed to be getting fuel from Shi'ite Muslim giant Iran, his main regional ally. Tehran has been bankrolling the Syrian government's fight against the rebels and offering military support.

A video posted on the internet showed rebels in camouflage and black scarves driving a tank under a sign that read "Euphrates Oil Company - al-Omar field". The speaker said the field was overrun at dawn on Saturday, but the authenticity of the footage could not be independently verified.

"We are now inside the al-Omar field, the biggest field in Syria. Seven tanks, two BMPs (amphibious armored vehicles) and all the weapons and vehicles inside the field were captured," the speaker said.

Syria is not a significant oil producer and has not exported any oil since late 2011, when international sanctions took effect to raise pressure on Assad. Prior to the sanctions, the country exported 370,000 barrels per day, mainly to Europe.

The conflict began in March 2011 as peaceful protests against four decades of Assad family rule but has devolved into a civil war that has killed well over 100,000 people.

Assad's forces have gained momentum against the rebels in recent months but opposition fighters, particularly powerful Islamist factions, still hold large swathes of territory in northern and eastern Syria.

The violence is destabilizing Syria's neighbors as well, due to sectarian and ethnic tensions that transcend borders. The uprising has fuelled Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in particular.

The rebels are led by the Sunni Muslim majority in Syria and have drawn support from radical Sunni groups such as Al-Qaida and other foreign militants.

Shi'ite countries and militias have thrown their weight behind Assad, who is from Syria's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Rebels, pro-government forces and local tribes have been fighting each other and sometimes even among themselves to seize oil reserves in eastern Syria.

Rebels and local tribes in other parts of Deir al-Zor, which borders Iraq, had been burning the oil themselves and locally selling or smuggling the oil. Much of the money had been used to buy heavier weapons, according to locals.

Government airstrikes in Syria's north kills at least 44, activists said.

Rami Abdurrahman, the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the attack on the rebel-held town of al-Bab near the northern city of Aleppo is the deadliest of the three raids. He said that strike killed 22.

Fighter jets also bombed two rebel-held districts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Government warplanes missed their target in the Halwaniyeh neighborhood and sent bombs into a crowded vegetable market, killing 15 people, Abdurrahman said. Seven people died in a third airstrike in the Karam el-Beik district, according to the activist group. The Observatory has been documenting the conflict by relying on a network of activists on the ground.

Air power has been Syrian President Bashar Assad's greatest advantage in the civil war. Over the past year, his forces have exploited it in a wide-ranging offensive to push back rebel gains in the north and around the capital, Damascus.

Syrian state television confirmed the fighter jets were in the north, but said they targeted "gatherings of terrorists" in Aleppo, killing a large number of them. Syrian state media routinely refers to rebels fighting to topple Assad's government as terrorists.

Another activist group, the Aleppo Media Network, confirmed Saturday's airstrikes and posted a video of what it says was the aftermath of the al-Bab raid. Plumes of smoke rose from twisted metal and chunks of broken-up concrete strewn on the ground.

The video appeared authentic and was consistent with The Associated Press' reporting of the airstrikes.

Also Saturday, a pro-government television station said gunmen fired at a vehicle belonging to a Syrian Cabinet minister, killing his driver. Al-Ekhbariya said Minister Ali Haider was not in the car when it came under fire while traveling on a highway that links the central city of Hama with Tartous on the Mediterranean coast. A government media office confirmed the report.