Feared al-Assad forces in Damascus attack

2012-07-22 18:31
This week, fierce fighting between troops and rebels reached the Syrian capital, the central bastion of Bashar Assad's rule. (AP Photo)

This week, fierce fighting between troops and rebels reached the Syrian capital, the central bastion of Bashar Assad's rule. (AP Photo)

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Damascus - Feared forces headed by President Bashar al-Assad's brother used helicopters on Sunday in a new offensive against rebels in Damascus, as clashes also raged in Syria's second city Aleppo, activists said.

The Fourth Brigade headed by Maher al-Assad was leading the assault in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh, triggering an exodus of residents, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Activists on the ground also reported heavy fire at Barzeh, in the northeast of the capital.

"Dozens of tanks are besieging scores of wounded people. A medical team could not reach [the area] because of the presence of military and security forces," the Observatory said, warning that lives were at risk if the siege continued.

The monitoring group estimated that more than 19 000 people have been killed in the 16-month uprising against the Assad family's four decades of iron-fisted rule.

With the nationwide death toll for Sunday standing at at least 19 on Sunday, according to the Observatory, a rebel Free Syrian Army commander declared the battle to "liberate" the second-biggest city of Aleppo had begun.

In a YouTube video, the FSA military council's Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi said the rebels would protect civilians, notably "the minorities - Christians, Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Alawites, Shi'ites and Druze" among others.

"Regime forces are using helicopters to pound the Barzeh district," an activist who identified himself as Abu Omar told AFP via Skype.

"Families are trying to flee their homes, but it is difficult to get out of the neighbourhood. It is surrounded, and violence on the edges is intense," the activist said.

Helicopter gunships

Abu Omar also said the army was raiding the nearby Rukn al-Din neighbourhood, while "helicopters used machine guns to fire into the district's streets."

"This morning, regime forces dropped leaflets into the neighbourhood, telling people to evacuate. This is a way to get people to turn against the revolt."

He added that several parts of Damascus were suffering from food and fuel shortages, and that clashes were continuing in the districts of Tadamon, Al-Midan and Nahr Ayshe.

The Observatory's director Rami Abdel Rahman, meanwhile, said "the feared Fourth Brigade" commanded by President Assad's powerful younger brother Maher had launched an operation in Barzeh.

"Troops have stormed the northwestern Barzeh district of Damascus with tanks and armed personnel carriers," he said, noting snipers had been deployed on rooftops.

Regime forces also deployed in the outskirts of the Mazzeh district of the capital, he said, adding one person was killed there on Sunday and several were wounded.

The official Sana news agency also said government forces had "cleansed" the Qaboon neighbourhood of "terrorists," the regime's term for rebel fighters.

State television aired footage reportedly from Qaboon showing dead bodies and weapons, communications equipment and money it said was captured from rebels.

Meanwhile, fierce clashes engulfed the districts of Salaheddin and Sakhur in Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub in the north which has seen heavy fighting since Friday.

Two crossings held

In a video, Colonel Abdel Jabbar Mohammad Oqaidi, head of the Free Syrian Army's military council in Aleppo province, announced "the start of the operation to liberate Aleppo from the hands of Assad's gangs."

An anti-regime activist in the city said the army began an assault on the Salaheddin district at dawn, in a bid to reclaim it from rebel hands.

"Violent clashes have been taking place since the early morning," he told AFP.

On Syria's borders, rebels battled troops for control of crossing posts with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

Fighters were able to hold onto the Albu Kamal crossing to Iraq, after capturing it Thursday, but regime forces regained hold of the Rabiyah crossing one day after it was claimed by opposition fighters.

A Turkish diplomat told AFP that had also rebels taken over Al-Salama crossing early on Sunday.

On Thursday, the Free Syrian Army claimed the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey, but by Saturday evening, an AFP photographer said the post was controlled by 150 foreign fighters who identified themselves as Islamists.

Fighting has intensified in Syria since a Wednesday bombing that killed national security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha, Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime's crisis cell on the uprising.

With the violence escalating, more than 2 000 Syrians fled to Jordan early on Sunday, a prominent local charity in the neighbouring Arab state said, expecting a largescale influx.

Thousands of refugees have also crossed into neighbouring Lebanon and Turkey.

Read more on:    bashar al-assad  |  syria  |  syria conflict  |  uprisings

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