Syria’s army command said it will suspend military operations to mark the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, declaring a ceasefire from Friday morning to Monday but saying it reserved the right to respond to rebel attacks and bombings.
It said it would also respond to “terrorist groups trying to reinforce their positions by arming themselves and getting reinforcements” as well as neighbouring countries facilitating the smuggling of fighters across borders during that period.
This as a body belonging to priest Fadi Haddad was found in the area of Reef Damascus earlier.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a few days ago anonymous gunmen kidnapped the priest. Fadi Haddad was the Minister of the St. Elias Greek Orthodox Church in the city of Katna in Damascus Reef.
A resident reported that the body was found in the nearby town of Drousheh, stressing that the priest was “savagely slaughtered.”
In this context, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces fired heavy tank and rocket barrages at a Damascus suburb on Thursday, killing five people, opposition activists said, a day before a UN-brokered ceasefire is due to come into force.
The fighting in Harasta, just northeast of Damascus, erupted after rebels overran two army roadblocks on the edge of the large town, which is on the main highway linking the capital to the country’s north, they said.
“Harasta is being pummeled by tanks and rocket launchers deployed in the highway. The rebels are putting up a fight and it does not seem the army will be able to enter the town this time,” Mohammad, a Damascus resident, said by phone.
He was referring to the last armored incursion by loyalist forces into Harasta a month ago, which opposition campaigners said had killed 70 people.
Harasta is one of a series of large Sunni Muslim suburbs ringing the Syrian capital that have been at the forefront of the 19-month-old rebellion against Assad.
He belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that has dominated Syrian politics since the 1960s.
The Harasta Media Office opposition activists’ group described the town as a “disaster zone” following the shelling.
“An (army) roadblock had been set up next to the main bakery. There is no water, no food, no medicine and prolonged power cuts,” it said in a statement.
Other residents of Damascus said the sound of shelling targeting Harasta and the nearby neighbourhood of Zamalka could be heard from the center of the capital.
On Wednesday, an Arab League mediator for the Syrian conflict told the U.N. Security Council that Assad has accepted a ceasefire for the Muslim ‘Eid’ holiday starting on Friday.
An announcement by the Syrian authorities was expected later. But Moaz al-Shami, an opposition activist in Damascus said “no one is taking the ceasefire seriously”.
“How can there be a ceasefire with tanks roaming the streets, roadblocks every few hundred meters and the army having no qualms about hitting civilian neighborhoods with heavy artillery? This is a regime that has lost all credibility.”
United Nations war crimes investigators said on Thursday they had asked to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to seek access for their team, which has been shut out of the country since being set up a year ago.
The team, led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro, has been gathering evidence and testimony on atrocities committed by Syrian government forces and armed rebels in the 19-month-old conflict.
Carla del Ponte, a former U.N. war crimes prosecutor who has joined the inquiry, was asked about similarities with past investigations including those into war crimes in former Yugoslavia. “The similarity is of course we are handling the same crimes, crimes against humanity and war crimes for sure,” she said.
For its part, China called on Thursday for all sides in the Syrian conflict to observe U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s proposal for a Muslim holiday ceasefire. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said he welcomed the move.
Iraqi Shiites increasingly fear the Muslim sect and its holy sites could be targeted in neighboring Syria as the civil war there takes on increasingly sectarian overtones, and Iranian-backed militants are girding for violence in both countries, according to Shiite leaders and government officials.
The Iraqi concerns center on the role ultraconservative Sunnis might play in Syria should President Bashar Assad be forced from power, and on what they see as growing threats to the revered Sayyida Zainab mosque complex outside Damascus.