Syrian army batters parts of Damascus, 47 killed

The Syrian army shelled southern Damascus on Wednesday and helicopters fired rockets and machine-guns.

Reuters August 23, 2012

AMMAN/ALEPPO: The Syrian army  shelled southern Damascus on Wednesday and helicopters fired  rockets and machine-guns during an assault meant to shore up  President Bashar al-Assad's grip on the capital 17 months into  an uprising, opposition activists said.      

The army has this week used tanks and helicopter gunships in  an offensive around Damascus that coincided with the departure  of UN military observers, their mission to stop the bloodshed  and nudge Syria towards a peaceful transition a failure.

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people  have been killed in what has become a civil war after the  state's violent response to peaceful street protests triggered  an armed rebellion in the pivotal Arab country.

Anti-Assad activists said at least 47 people had been killed  in Damascus in what they called the heaviest bombardment this  month. "The whole of Damascus is shaking with the sound of  shelling," said a woman in Kfar Souseh, one of several districts  hit in the military offensive to root out rebel fighters.

The United Nations said some of the weapons being used by  government forces appeared to have been supplied by Iran, in  violation of a UN resolution that banned such exports.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will raise the Syria  crisis with Iran at a summit of non-aligned developing nations  in Tehran next week, a UN spokesman said.

As the army continued to shell southern Damascus, activists  said at least 22 people had been killed in Kfar Souseh and 25 in  the nearby district of Nahr Eisha.

One of the dead was named as Mohammad Saeed al Odeh, a  journalist employed at a state-run newspaper who was sympathetic  to the anti-Assad revolt. Activists said he had been executed in  Nahr Eisha.

"There are 22 tanks in Kfar Souseh now and behind each one  there are at least 30 soldiers. They are raiding houses and  executing men," an opposition activist in Kfar Souseh, who gave his name only as Bassam, told Reuters by Skype.

More than 250 people, including 171 civilians, were killed across Syria on Tuesday, mostly around Damascus, Aleppo and the southern city of Deraa, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition monitoring group.

Activists in the southwestern Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya said Assad's forces had killed 86 people there since Monday, half of them by execution. It was not possible to verify that report.

There was no immediate government account of the latest  fighting. But state television broadcast footage of weapons it  said had been seized from rebels in Mouadamiya, one of the first  districts to join the uprising.

The conflict, which pits a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition  against a ruling system dominated by Assad's Alawite minority,  threatens to destabilise neighbours including Lebanon, where Sunni-Alawite violence flared for a third day.

The death toll from the fighting in the northern Lebanese  city of Tripoli rose to at least 10 with more than 100 wounded,  medical sources said, in what residents said were some of the  fiercest clashes there since Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.

The Syria conflict has revived old tensions in Tripoli  between pro-Assad Alawites in the hilltop district of Jebel Mohsen and their Sunni neighbours in Bab al-Tabbaneh below.

Aleppo battles

In Syria, Assad's forces have lost swathes of territory in  recent months, but have fought back hard in Damascus and in  Aleppo, the country's biggest city and commercial hub until it  became a theatre for urban warfare.

Reuters journalists in Aleppo on Wednesday heard gunfire and  shells exploding every minute.

Rebels trying to advance in Saif al-Dawla, a front-line Aleppo district, encountered mortar and rocket-propelled grenade  fire. At one point, their escape route was cut off by gunfire as  tank shells exploded nearby. Much of the area was destroyed.

State television said government forces were pursuing "the  remnants of armed terrorist gangs."

Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty International, who recently returned from a 10-day visit to Aleppo, said the rights group in vestigated some 30 attacks in  which scores of civilians not involved in hostilities, many of  them children, were killed or injured in their homes, while  queuing for bread and even in places where those displaced by  the conflict were sheltering as a result of indiscriminate  attacks against residential neighbourhoods.

"The use of imprecise weapons, such as unguided bombs, artillery shells and mortars by government forces has  dramatically increased the danger for civilians", Roveras aid.

While the situation at the front line remained difficult,  just 400 metres (400 yards) behind it, women and children were walking down the streets casually - some carrying groceries -  and just 1 km back streets were bustling with normal life.

Children carried groceries from shops doing brisk business and couples held hands as smoke from the fighting rose into the  sky behind them.

Away from the main cities, government forces fought rebels  for control of a military base and airfield near the eastern  town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, according to a local Iraqi official and a Syrian rebel commander.

The rebel commander, known as Abu Khalid, said his forces  now controlled Albu Kamal, straddling a supply route from Iraq  where many Sunni tribes sympathise with their Syrian kin.

But rebels were on the back foot near the border with Turkey after Syrian soldiers backed by helicopters attacked a village to try to cut off a supply line, opposition sources said.

At least three people were killed and 10 wounded when army  helicopters bombarded Qastoun, a village in Hama province, 24  kms (15 miles) east of the Turkish border, and rebels fought  loyalist troops, the Hama Revolutionary Council said.

As Syria slips deeper into chaos, the United States and Israel have voiced concern that Assad might lose control of his chemical weapons arsenal or even be tempted to use it.

Russia, a Syrian ally since Soviet times, believes Syria has  no intention of using its chemical weapons and is able to  safeguard them, the Russian newspaper Kommersant reported on  Wednesday, citing an unidentified Foreign Ministry official.

US President Barack Obama threatened Assad on Monday with  "enormous consequences" if he employed chemical weapons or even  if he moved them in a menacing way, drawing a warning from  Russia against any unilateral action by the West.

In telephone conversations with Obama and French President  Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron discussed "how to build on the support already given to the opposition to end the appalling violence in Syria," Cameron's  office said.

The White House said Obama conveyed his concerns on the call  about the "increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Syria," and the need for contributions to humanitarian appeals in the  region.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the incoming UN mediator on Syria, met  representatives of the Free Syrian Army in Paris on Wednesday. The group said it was sceptical he would succeed where his  predecessor - Kofi Annan - had failed.

"Foreign intervention that is not through a Security  Council resolution is something that very seldom works," Brahimi  told Finnish public broadcaster YLE.

"My instinct is to say please, let's see if we can solve  this problem without external military intervention."

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