x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Assad's forces swept through village, torching and killing: activists

Government forces swept through a small farming village in central Syria this week, torching houses and shooting and stabbing residents in attack that killed up to 106 people, including women and children, activists say.

BEIRUT // Forces loyal to the president, Bashar Al Assad, swept through a small farming village in central Syria this week, torching houses and shooting and stabbing residents in an attack that killed up to 106 people, including women and children, activists said yesterday.

The assault on Haswiyeh outside the city of Homs took place on Tuesday, but was only coming to light two days later as the scale of the killings became more apparent. The attacks appeared to have sectarian motives and bore a resemblance to the attack last May on the nearby village of Houla that killed 108 people and drew international condemnation of the Assad regime.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll in Haswiyeh at 106 and said some of the dead were "burnt inside their homes while others were killed with knives" and other weapons. It added that there are reports that "whole families were executed, one of them made up of 32 members".

Youssef Al Homsi, an activist based in Homs, also said at least 100 people were killed in Haswiyeh. Omar Idilbi of the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) activist group put the death toll at 37, but said the figure was from Wednesday and that more bodies have been found since.

It was not possible to confirm the activist reports because of severe reporting restrictions in Syria.

A government official in Damascus flatly denied the reports of carnage, and said that no such killings took place in the area at all.

However, the pro-government daily Al-Watan reported yesterday that Syrian troops advanced in the countryside of Homs "cleansing the villages of Haswiyeh and Dweir as well as their fields" from gunmen.

Rebels and government troops are known to have clashed in the area around Haswiyeh earlier this week. The city and surrounding countryside have been hit by heavy fighting since shortly after the country's crisis began in March 2011. The UN says at least 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

Yesterday, Jordan also said it will prevent a mass exodus of Syrian refugees from entering its territory if the Assad regime collapses and will instead create a safe haven inside Syria to protect them, Jordan's prime minister said yesterday.

Prime minister Abdullah Ensour's remarks reflect widely held concerns in Jordan, which is already hosting 285,000 Syrian refugees and has exhausted its meagre health care, education, water and energy resources. Jordan is also anxious that the lawlessness and street chaos that could follow Mr Al Assad's collapse would spill over Syria's southern border into the kingdom - a traditionally quiet country with a prided security record in the volatile Middle East.

"If the regime collapses and there was another exodus of refugees, we will stop them and keep them in their country," Mr Ensour said.

His aides said that Jordan however has not yet decided and would unlikely close its northern border to block refugees.

Meanwhile, two fighters including the brother-in-law of the slain Al Qaeda Iraq leader, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, have been killed in clashes with Syrian regime forces, a senior Jordanian official said yesterday.

"Adam Abulmutasem and Mohammad Jarad, who are in their 20s, were killed two days ago in clashes with regime troops in the southern province of Sweida," Abed Shehadeh, known as Abu Mohammad Tahawi, said.

The Jordanian-born Zarqawi was killed in an air strike by the United States military in Iraq in 2006.

In Iraq, an official said it the country will re-open two border points to Jordan and Syria, more than a week after they were shut due to rallies blocking the main route linking Baghdad to the two countries, an official said yesterday.

The Trebil crossing, the only checkpoint linking Iraq to Jordan, and the Al Walid crossing, Iraq's southern-most checkpoint along its border with Syria, will open from today.

In Syria, the governor of country's traditional commercial hub Aleppo has put the cost of damage to the embattled northern province at US$2.5 billion (Dh9.18bn) state media said yesterday.

"More than 180,000 houses have been damaged, as well as more than 1,000 schools, 16 university campus buildings and 52 mosques," the official said.

The Observatory and Mr Al Homsi said all of the dead appeared to be Sunni Muslims, suggesting that the killings may have been sectarian in nature.

Elsewhere in Syria, activists reported violence in different parts of the country yesterday including fighting in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus. The Observatory also reported air raids in the capital's suburbs, which have witnessed heavy clashes between troops and rebels in recent weeks.

The Observatory and the LCC also reported clashes in the town of Beit Saham, just south of the capital and near the city's international airport.