x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Assad's tanks bombard Aleppo

The Syrian army bombard parts of Aleppo yesterday as the feared air and ground assault against rebel fighters in Syria¿s largest city began.


BEIRUT //The Syrian army used tanks and helicopters to bombard parts of Aleppo yesterday as the feared air and ground assault against rebel fighters in Syria's largest city began.

Regime forces who have been building up in and around the city moved on south-western districts of Aleppo, where rebel fighters have been largely in control for the past week.

Activists said the attack began yesterday morning as the army bombarded several areas before armoured units moved in. Salaheddine, a neighbourhood in the south-west of the city that was one of the first to be seized by rebel fighters, bore the brunt of much of the attacks.

Video posted online showed rebels fighting government forces on a street in Salaheddine that echoed with the sound of gunfire, as plumes of smoke rose from buildings hit by explosions.

"The regime's forces tried to storm the headquarters of Salaheddine but, thank God, the heroes of the Free Syrian Army repulsed the attack," FSA Colonel Abdel Jabbar Al Oqaidi said.

"We have now destroyed eight armoured vehicles. There are 100 tanks massed on the outskirts of the district. The battle will be hard because there is no balance of forces, but we are determined and we have faith in God."

Syria's state news agency, Sana, described violence in the Furqan district as "a terrorist group … terrorising residents".

Activists said thousands of people tried to flee the escalating violence in the city. Some families left clutching jars of preserves and bottles of milk and water amid food shortages. Those who were not able to get away in time hid in basements.

Three women sheltering in a Salaheddin basement were all armed with small pistols. "I would choose death rather than be attacked by the regime soldiers," one said.

Foreign powers have expressed concern about the potential for massive civilian casualties in the city as the fighting escalates. Even Russia, a key Syrian ally, yesterday warned of a looming tragedy in Aleppo, home to about three million people and the country's commercial hub.

However, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said the Syrian military could not be expected to stand by while opposition fighters took control of major urban areas.

"We are persuading the government that they need to make some first gestures," he said. "But when the armed opposition are occupying cities like Aleppo, where yet another tragedy is brewing as I understand … it is not realistic to expect that they will accept this."

Mr Lavrov also stressed his country has not entered into an agreement to grant Mr Al Assad asylum.

"We have said more than once publicly that we are not even thinking about this," he told reporters when asked about media reports of a possible asylum deal.//

Despite failed attempts to get the United Nations Security Council to agree on a unified stand on Syria, the French president Francois Hollande yesterday again called on the council to intervene in the conflict "as quickly as possible" to prevent further chaos.

Turkey also added its voice to the growing international condemnation of the Syrian government's actions in Aleppo. Speaking in London, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's prime minister, said it was not possible "to remain an observer or spectator" to the offensive and urged the international community to act.

"What is happening is very important and very dangerous," said Mr Erdogan.

"There is a regime there that kills and massacres its own people. We must do what we can together, in the United Nations Security Council and also in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, to make sure that we can make some important progress in trying to avert this appalling situation."

More than 20,000 people have now been killed since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad began in March last year, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said yesterday. Most of the dead have been civilians and rebel fighters, said the group, which also recorded the deaths of more than 5,000 members of the security forces.

At least 120 people were killed across the country yesterday, including more than 20 children, according to the Local Coordination Committees. The group, a network of Syrian activists, said at least 30 people were killed in Aleppo and 22 in the Damascus area.

Four children were killed in Moadamiyat Sham on the outskirts of Damascus, when the area was hit by intense shelling, according to the LCC.

Activists also reported further violence across the country yesterday including in Idlib, Hama and Deir Ezzor.

These reports could not be verified.

Russia warned yesterday that it would not cooperate with the requirements of recent European Union sanctions that sought to impose a stricter arms embargo on the Assad regime.

Moscow said it would not allow EU states to search vessels that may be suspected of transporting weapons to Syria.

"We … will not consider appeals and give consent to searches of vessels sailing under the Russian flag, nor to the application of other restrictive measures to them," the Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said.

Moscow has been heavily criticised for continuing arms shipments to the Syrian government during the civil war.

Syrian state television said security forces had freed two foreigners captured earlier this month by an armed group.

"Our forces have managed to release two Italians who were kidnapped by terrorists in the Damascus countryside," it said, with footage of the men being interviewed.

The captured men, believed to be Italian engineers working at a power plant south of Damascus, were en route to the airport over a week ago when they were taken by masked men.

It is not known who abducted them. Giulio Terzi, the Italian foreign minister, their release.



* With additional reporting by Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse