Syrian regime steps up air raids despite U.N. resolution
Smoke billows from the site of reported airstrike by pro-regime planes in the eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus on February 22, 2014. (AFP)
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Air raids on rebel-held towns across Syria killed 26 people Monday, activists said, two days after the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding an end to indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks.
Syria’s almost 3-year-old conflict has raged on despite peace talks that began in Geneva last month and the passage of the U.N. resolution, a rare moment of unity between the West and Russia, President Bashar Assad’s strongest backer.
Two women and 10 children were among the dead in government air raids on the town of Neshabia, in the eastern outskirts of Damascus, near a railway marking the front line between Islamist fighters and Assad’s forces backed by Hezbollah, and in the province of Homs to the north.
“Two simultaneous raids hit Neshabia first. People were pulling the bodies of a woman and her two children from one house when the planes came back and hit the crowed, killing another nine,” activist Abu Saqr told Reuters from the area.
He said artillery fire from a battalion based at Damascus airport and the nearby town of Mliha then hit the town. Fifty people were wounded in the combined bombardment, he said.
Photos taken by activists, purportedly at a field hospital in the area, showed a girl’s body covered in a white shroud and the decapitated bodies of several men. Reuters could not independently verify the pictures.
“We barely managed to take the bodies before the artillery hit,” said Abu Abdo, a rescue worker at the field hospital.
In Homs province, activists reported air raids on Al-Hosn, a Sunni town near Crac des Chevaliers in a valley mostly inhabited by Christians, who have mostly stayed on the sidelines in the conflict between Assad and rebels.
The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grass-roots opposition group, said six people were killed in the attack on Al-Hosn. Footage showed the bodies of two people amid the rubble, one of whom was identified as a woman.
Another video showed a rocket hitting the densely built-up town, with smoke rising as the sound of a warplane is heard.
In the town of Talbiseh, on Syria’s main north-south highway, opposition activists said an air raid killed four children. Footage showed relatives gathered around the bodies, which were wrapped in white and laid on a tiled floor. One man was shown holding the bloodied head of one child and weeping.
On Saturday, Russia and China voted with Western powers for a U.N. resolution calling for access for aid in Syria and threatening “further steps” in case of noncompliance.
The initial text was weakened during negotiations, with references to the International Criminal Court and targeted sanctions removed. But a call for an end to shelling and air raids in populated areas, a demand for cross-border humanitarian access and the naming of besieged areas were included.
The resolution also condemned “terrorist” attacks by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, which have emerged as some of the most formidable anti-Assad groups, and specifically referred to the Syrian military’s use of barrel bombs, which human rights groups say are indiscriminate weapons that mainly target civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, said four children had been killed Monday by barrel bombs that hit Aleppo, scene of heavy fighting in the last two days.
Also in Aleppo, government troops battled rebels over a strategic district that could be key to securing a nearby prison and laying siege to the city’s rebel-held east.
The Al-Watan daily, which is close to the government, said troops had advanced in the Sheikh Najjar district of Syria’s second city and onetime economic hub.
The Observatory said that three groups – the Islamic Front alliance of seven militias, the Nusra Front, and the Mujahedeen Army – declared a general call-up to confront the regime’s campaign.
“The army has achieved new progress in Sheikh Najjar industrial city ... during its military operation to cleanse the vicinity of the Aleppo central prison and lift the siege on it,” the newspaper said.
The prison has been attacked multiple times by rebels hoping to free the approximately 3,500 detainees inside, who are reportedly being held in dire conditions.
In early February, rebels launched a major assault on the facility, beginning with a suicide car bombing at its main entrance.
Opposition forces were able to overrun parts of the facility for hours, before regime warplanes unleashed a bombing campaign against them. The rebels were pushed back but retained control of part of the sprawling complex.
Large parts of the fence surrounding the building collapsed during the attack, and the rebels have continued to try to penetrate the facility.
Rebels carried out another suicide bombing at the prison Thursday, killing at least eight soldiers.
Al-Watan Monday quoted “military experts” as saying that army units were battling to take strategic areas in Sheikh Najjar that overlook the outskirts of the prison.
The paper said the army hoped to station artillery there to help fend off attacks on the prison “which have intensified in recent days.”
Nazir Khatib, an opposition activist from Aleppo, said his contacts there had confirmed the fighting in Sheikh Najjar.
“Ahrar al-Sham and other members of the Islamic Front have deployed reinforcements to the Sheikh Najjar front,” Khatib said.
“The most intense fighting is happening there, because the rebels know that should it fall to regime hands, Aleppo will be under siege, like areas of southern and eastern Damascus,” he said.
Aleppo has been largely divided between government control in the west of the city and rebel control in the east since fighting broke out there in mid-2012.
But regime forces have made advances on the southeastern outskirts of the city in recent months, securing and reopening the international airport there.
In a sign of the stepped-up fighting on various fronts, the Observatory reported casualties on both sides of clashes between regime troops and rebel groups in the provinces of Hassakeh, Deir al-Zor and Qunaitra. It said Sunday’s nationwide death toll stood at 222 people, but the majority – 184 – were fighters from the various sides.
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