DAMASCUS // The Syrian government yesterday rejected a report by the United Nations documenting alleged war crimes and sectarianism, as regime forces continued an assault on the rebel stronghold of Daraya, once again claiming victory to be close at hand.
Casualty figures are impossible to independently verify but a panel of UN experts, tasked with investigating the situation in Syria, said this week that more than 60,000 people had been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
That UN report, which also highlighted growing sectarianism and an increased flouting of international laws governing conduct in wartime, was dismissed by Syria's foreign ministry yesterday as unprofessional and biased.
In a letter sent to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Syrian government said the inquiry was based on invalid information, and failed to sufficiently note the presence of Islamist extremists responsible for "the unprecedented continuing violations of all human rights in Syria".
The foreign ministry inquired why the UN commission "did not reach the fact that ideologies and devilish acts of gunmen, and those who support them, are the fundamental factor that entered Syrian society since the beginning of the crisis and [are] responsible for what is happening in Syria", said Sana, the official news agency.
Government troops have been fighting for months to take control of Daraya, a strategically important town of some 200,000 people on the southern edge of the Syrian capital.
Yesterday military forces shelled the area and jets flew overhead but, after an intensive series of air strikes and a heavy artillery bombardment on Thursday, the battle seemed to have subsided.
Most of the population has fled, many now enduring a cold winter as refugees in nearby schools and unfinished apartment blocks. Security officials have said no civilians remain in Daraya with only armed militants left - branded "terrorists" by the government.
The pro-regime Al Watan newspaper reported the army had "won the battle against the terrorists in Daraya and destroyed their last positions", with government forces expected to be in complete control by the end of the day. It made a similar claim a month ago.
"About 3,000 terrorists from Daraya have been arrested this week, when we have won in Daraya the whole city of Damascus will be safe again," said a soldier based in the southern suburbs.
He stressed the importance of Daraya, saying it would be a launch pad for rebel attacks on the heart of Damascus and the Mezzeh military airport complex. As such it was a key priority for regime forces, he said. Reinforced units loyal to president Bashar Al Assad have been doing much of the fighting there.
Opposition activists say hundreds of people have been killed in the latest battles in Daraya, in addition to almost 700 killed, mainly civilians, in one of the worst reported massacres of last year.
Fighting continued yesterday across much of the country, including the northern province of Idlib - largely in rebel hands - where another key military airbase, Taftanaz, has been besieged and, according to the opposition, overrun.
Sana, the official news agency rejected those claims, quoting an unnamed source in the army general command saying an attack by militants had been repulsed by "our heroic army".
The Local Coordination Committees, a network of grassroots activists, said at least 57 people had been killed nationwide by yesterday afternoon.
UN human rights monitors, in common with all independent international rights monitoring organisations, have not been given permission by the government to work in Syria.
The authorities in Damascus say they expressed a willingness to cooperate with the probe and accused the UN panel of using "logistics issues" as a pretext for basing its report on partial sources.
In their December 20 report, the UN human rights team said the Syrian regime had used disproportionate force in attacks on non-military targets, including firing shells and hospitals and using air strikes.
"As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law," the report said.
On Wednesday an air raid on a busy petrol station in a restive eastern suburb of Damascus killed 30 people, according to activists. The following day a bomb killed 11 people at a petrol station in the Barzeh neighbourhood, with Syrian officials blaming "terrorists" for the attack.
Lebanon, meanwhile, is to keep its border with Syria open to refugees but will seek more aid from other Arab states and the international community, the government decided late on Thursday. The cabinet rejected calls from ministers of the Free Patriotic Movement to close the border with the number of refugees in Lebanon already totalling 156,000, according to UN figures, and 200,000 according to government estimates.
Also yesterday, the United States said troops were arriving in Turkey to man Patriot missiles there.
Germany, the Netherlands and the US are deploying two Patriot surface-to-air batteries each to boost Nato ally Turkey's air defenses against any possible spillover from Syria's civil war.
firstname.lastname@example.org with additional reporting by Associated Press