#Syria #Aleppo Rebels make progress inside Midan neighborhood
DAMASCUS: Syrian rebels sought to seal off President Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime from the outside world by seizing border posts amid calls for protests nationwide Friday on “the Ramadan of victory.”
Members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fought a raging battle with Syrian troops at the Bab al-Hawa border post with Turkey, an AFP photographer at the scene reported, addding that some 150 rebel fighters now controlled the crossing.
More than 300 people were killed across Syria on Thursday’s deadliest day of the uprising now in its 17th month, as both China and Russia again dismayed the West by vetoing UN Security Council action against his regime for the third time.
Two days after rebels killed three of Assad’s security chiefs including his brother-in-law, battles raged in the capital on Friday as the army said it had retaken the district of Midan from “terrorists”, the term it uses for the rebels.
“Our brave army forces have completely cleaned the area of Midan in Damascus of the remaining mercenary terrorists and have reestablished security,” state television said.
In Brussels, the European Union is preparing to freeze the assets of at least 26 Syrians close to Assad and readying plans to board vessels and aircraft suspected of supplying weapons to his regime.
Syria on Friday began the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan amid a security forces ultimatum to “cleanse Damascus of terrorists”.
Activists have called for fresh anti-regime demonstrations after the regular weekly prayers under the slogan “The Ramadan of victory will be written in Damascus”.
The army on Thursday resorted to heavy armour in the capital for the first time, using tanks against the rebels.
Assad also appeared in public for the first time since Wednesday’s bombing, greeting his new defence minister on state television as he scrambled to shore up his battered prestige. His previous defence minister was killed by the bomb.
Violence is spiralling across the country, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported 302 people — 98 Syrian soldiers, 139 civilians and 65 rebels — killed on Thursday nationwide.
At the Bab al-Hawa frontier crossing with Turkey, rebels sacked the Syrian border post, which was bloodstained and riddled with bullets. They also looted Turkish lorries caught up in the battle.
Syrian soldiers had abandoned the site in the northwest province of Idlib, the scene of fierce fighting for months.
On Thursday, Iraq’s deputy interior minister said the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had seized control of all crossings along their common border.
“All the border points between Iraq and Syria are under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” Adnan al-Assadi told AFP by telephone.
Assadi said Iraqi border guards had seen FSA fighters seize a border outpost, detain a Syrian lieutenant colonel, and cut off his arms and legs. “Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers.”
The account of the killings could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile at the United Nations, Russia and China used their powers as permanent Security Council members to block resolutions on Syria for the third time in nine months.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who had called on the council to impose “consequences” for the failure to carry out his peace plan for Syria, expressed disappointment that it had failed to reach agreement.
Washington condemned the “highly regrettable decision” of China and Russia to veto the UN resolution, with President Barack Obama’s spokesman Jay Carney warning of “repercussions… in terms of how they’re viewed by the Syrian people.”
“There’s no doubt that Syria’s future will not include Bashar al-Assad. His days in power are numbered,” he warned.
Washington said the Security Council had “utterly failed” on Syria and that it would now work outside the council to confront Assad’s regime.
The White House also said that without the tougher mandate the vetoed text would have implied, there was no point in retaining UN military observers in Syria to monitor the non-implementation of Annan’s plan by Assad’s government.
Britain and Pakistan proposed rival resolutions extending the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) and, amid Council deadlock, a vote on both could be held on Friday, just hours before the end of the mission’s 90-day mandate.
Russia said on Friday it backs an unconditional 45-day extension of the observer mission.
The upsurge in fighting has sparked a new exodus of refugees.
Nearly 19,000 Syrians poured into Lebanon, a security official told AFP in Beirut, while Iraqi officials said thousands of Iraqi refugee families had fled home from Syria.
The Syrian military had given residents 48 hours to leave areas of the capital, as security forces fought rebels pushing their “Damascus Volcano” offensive.
The authorities said state funerals would be held in Damascus on Friday for the three regime stalwarts killed in Wednesday’s bombing.
Assad’s brother-in-law and one of the Syrian security apparatus’ hawks, Assef Shawkat, will be buried later in the western province of Tartus.
Daoud Rajha, who was defence minister, will be buried in his Christian town of Maalula near Damascus, and crisis cell chief Hassan Turkmani in northern Aleppo.
Rebels declared the battle to “liberate” Damascus has begun as heavy fighting raged across the city yesterday and Russia said an agreement is possible for a UN resolution on the Syria crisis.
The proclamation by the Free Syrian Army, which also claimed it had shot down a helicopter in the capital, came as peace envoy Kofi Annan said the 16-month crisis increasingly described as a civil war was at a “critical time”.
Heavy machinegun fire was reported in Damascus’s Sabaa Bahrat Square, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has staged rallies to counter anti-regime protests that erupted in March 2011.
At least 19 people were killed as tanks and helicopter gunships were deployed in Qaboon district and battles were fought in Al Midan and Al Hajar Al Aswad, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
As the fighting inched closer to the regime’s nerve centre, FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said “victory is nigh” and the struggle would go on until the city was conquered.
“We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital. We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.”
“Expect surprises,” Saadeddine added, before adding later that rebels had downed a helicopter over Qaboon, although an activist in the district said there was “no foundation” to the report.
Fighting in the city has raged since Sunday, with the rebels announcing a full-scale offensive dubbed “the Damascus volcano and earthquakes of Syria”.
An activist who said he was in Al Midan neighbourhood said the army was shelling the neighbourhood “hysterically”.
“The collapsing regime has gone mad,” the man calling himself Abu Musab said via Skype.
“The army has tried to storm the district, but the Free Syrian Army has stopped them. So they have intensified their shelling. They are shelling everything,” he said.
AFP could not independently verify the account.
Witnesses also reported heavy machinegun fire in Sabaa Bahrat Square in central Damascus and in nearby Baghdad Street.
But an army officer in Damascus said troops have “the situation under control” and were “chasing the terrorists seeking refuge in apartments and mosques”.
The source said “battles raged” in Qaboon, “where the majority of rebels were”, adding that “33 terrorists were killed, 15 were wounded and 145 were arrested,” referring to rebels.
The regime has vowed not to surrender the capital.
In that context, the Israeli army’s intelligence chief said Syrian troops had been moved from the Golan Heights towards conflict zones including Damascus.
“Assad has removed many of his forces that were in the Golan Heights to the areas of conflict,” Major General Aviv Kochavi told MPs.
“Radical Islam” was gaining ground, he warned, adding that Syria was undergoing a process of “Iraqisation”, with militant and tribal factions controlling different zones.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Annan that he would “do everything” to support the UN-Arab League peace envoy’s plan to end the conflict.
Annan told Putin “the Syrian crisis is at a critical time.”
Later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he saw “no reason why we cannot also agree at the UN Security Council. We are ready for this.”
Annan added: “The Council, I expect, will be sending out a message that the killings must stop and that the situation on the ground is unacceptable.”
Annan’s Moscow meetings came one day before Western powers plan to hold a vote on a UN resolution that threatens sanctions against Damascus.
The council must also vote to decide on renewing the 300-strong UN Supervision Mission in Syria, deployed to monitor an April 12 ceasefire Assad agreed with Annan.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon “called on Russia to use its influence to ensure the full and immediate implementation” of Annan’s plan in a telephone call with Lavrov, a spokesman said.
Ban was due in Beijing yesterday, also on a mission to get support for tougher action on Syria.
Russia and China have twice blocked resolutions against Syria at the Security Council, which remains divided over Western calls to impose new sanctions.
On a visit to Syria’s neighbour Jordan, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the crisis is too unpredictable to rule out “any option”.
Stepping up the pressure, French President Francois Hollande said “the Russians must understand that they cannot be seen as the only ones or almost the only ones hindering the search for a solution.”
As wrangling continued over rival resolution drafts, the Security Council expressed concern about fallout from the conflict in Lebanon, UN diplomats said.
UN envoy to Lebanon Derek Plumbly said there was “concern about the pressures on the Lebanese border in recent weeks, incursions and shooting across the border”.
The Observatory said at least 35 people were killed across Syria yesterday, 16 of them civilians, adding to its toll of more than 17,000 people dead since the uprising began.
Meanwhile, Nawaf Fares, who became the most prominent figure to abandon Assad when he defected as Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, warned the regime will use chemical weapons against opposition forces and may have already deployed them.
Another key defector, General Manaf Tlass, a childhood friend of Assad, said in a statement sent to AFP that he was in Paris and called for a “constructive transition” in the country.
Russian president Vladimir Putin (left) greets UN envoy Kofi Annan at the start of a meeting concerning a peace plan for Syria at the Kremlin in Moscow yesterday. Clashes in Damascus between rebels and state forces raged for a third day, in the fiercest fighting to hit Syria’s seat of power since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad began 17 months ago.Photograph: Sergei Karpukhin
UN HUMANITARIAN chief Valerie Amos yesterday warned combatants involved in the Syrian conflict to avoid loss of civilian life or face prosecution for war crimes as fierce fighting continued for the third day in Damascus.
Baroness Amos observed: “As the International Committee of the Red Cross has now described the situation as an armed conflict, international humanitarian law applies across Syria in areas where there is fighting.”
Shooting was reported in the capital near the central bank in Seven Springs Square, often the site of pro-regime demonstrations, and at the headquarters of the ruling Baath party in the al-Mazra’ah area. Firing erupted on Baghdad Avenue, and rebels claim to have shot down one of the helicopters overhead.
The army was said to have deployed artillery against rebel strongholds in the capital’s outskirts where dissidents established a presence many months ago. The escalation followed the declaration on Monday night by the rebel Free Syrian Army of “Damascus Volcano”, an all-out offensive against government troops. Rebel spokesman Col Qassim Saadeddine announced, “The battle for Damascus has begun.” A diplomat in Damascus said this operation has started ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan when anti-regime protesters can be expected to take to the streets.
This battle commenced on the southern edge of the capital and has spread to the northeast and centre. A main focus has been the Midan district, where troops have surrounded rebels and refuse to allow them to retreat to less densely populated areas. Shooting has been heard in Palestinian camps where rebels retreating from the besieged Tadamon quarter have sought refuge.
The rebels also announced they launched attacks on government troops in traditional hot spots Homs, Hama and Idlib, and threatened to block main internal and international routes. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an influential component of the ex-patriate Syrian National Council, urged Syrians to seize “this historic moment” by giving support to the rebels. “Prepare to become soldiers in this decisive battle. You will secure victory with your own two hands,” stated the movement, outlawed in Syria since 1963.
The opening of the offensive has been timed to coincide with the UN Security Council’s consideration of a draft resolution, proposed by Britain, the US, France and Germany. It would extend the deployment of the UN monitoring mission in Syria for 45 days and place implementation of the peace plan proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan under chapter seven of the UN charter which authorises military action as well as sanctions if threats are posed to international peace and security.
Although the US says it favours sanctions not military action, Moscow distrusts Washington which used a similar resolution to lead Nato intervention in the Libyan conflict. During talks in Moscow with Mr Annan, Russian president Vladimir Putin pledged to “do everything” to support the Annan peace plan but would not back the western draft. Mr Annan, who warned the “crisis is in a key turning point”, said he hoped discussions would continue and send a message to Syria. Ahead of this encounter, Moscow declared its intention to veto the resolution. Russia has circulated its own draft extending the mandate of the monitors.
In spite of a last-minute appeal from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, China is likely to support Russia in the vote, scheduled for today. China’s People’s Daily editorialised, “The life of Syria’s current political leadership can only be determined by the Syrian people.”