x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Assad unleashes helicopter gunships on his own capital

Elite troops led by president's brother in assault on rebels as battle for control of Damascus continues.

Smoke from artillery shelling rises above the Syrian village of Jbatha Al Khashab, about 45km south of Damascus. The Syrian capital has what analysts believe may be the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East.
Smoke from artillery shelling rises above the Syrian village of Jbatha Al Khashab, about 45km south of Damascus. The Syrian capital has what analysts believe may be the largest stockpile of chemical weapons in the Middle East.

BEIRUT // The Syrian president Bashar Al Assad launched helicopter gunships to attack his own capital yesterday as regime troops fought rebels for control of parts of Damascus.

After a week of intense battles, the elite Fourth Brigade commanded by Mr Al Assad's brother Maher led an assault on rebels in the neighbourhood of Barzeh, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Helicopters pounded the area and snipers were deployed on rooftops, the UK-based Observatory reported. "Troops have stormed the north-western Barzeh district of Damascus with tanks and armoured personnel carriers," it said.

Regime troops were also deployed in Mezzeh in the west of the city, where the opposition reported 24 deaths after shelling.

State television denied helicopters were being used in the capital, which it said was mostly quiet apart from some operations to root out "terrorists" - the term the Syrian government uses to describe the rebels.

The official news agency, Sana, said government forces had "cleansed" the Qaboon neighbourhood of "terrorists".

Mr Al Assad appeared on state television yesterday - the second time since the deadly bombing last week that killed four of his top security aides. He has yet to speak publicly about the attack or the escalation of the conflict in Damascus, but was shown yesterday with his new army chief of staff, General Ali Ayyoub.

A Syrian rebel group released video purporting to show the aftermath of Wednesday's bombing at the National Security headquarters in Damascus.

The footage of smoke rising near the site of the target was circulated by the "Military Leadership of Damascus City and Province" in the name of the Hawks Special Operations Battalion, which claimed responsibility for the blast.

Two other groups - the Free Syrian Army and Liwa Al Islam - both claimed responsibility for the attack last week. The Hawks Battalion is believed to comprise army officers who have defected.

Rebel fighters also continued their fight yesterday to "liberate" Aleppo, Syria's commercial hub, opening another troubling front for the regime.

Activists said they were fighting for control of areas including the central Salaheddine district and clashes were taking place between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government forces in parts of the city including Nairab, on the road to Aleppo's airport. Thousands of civilians have fled parts of the city where street battles are taking place.

In a video posted online by activists, Colonel Abdul Jabbar Aqidi, the commander of rebel forces in Aleppo province, said: "We gave the orders for the march into Aleppo with the aim of liberating it.

"We urge the residents of Aleppo to stay in their homes until the city is liberated." He urged government troops to defect and join the uprising.

Col Aqidi also sought to reassure members of the Alawite minority, the offshoot of Shia Islam to which the Assad family belong. "Our war is not with you" but with the regime, he said.

However, Sana yesterday denied reports about rebel gains in Aleppo and claimed that a "large number of terrorists" had been killed in the city. Other fighters had turned themselves in to authorities or fled back towards the Turkish border, it said.

Syrian opposition fighters captured a third crossing on the northern border with Turkey. A video posted online by activists showed gunmen standing in front of the Bab Al Salam border crossing as they raised the Syrian opposition flag. Last week rebels seized control of the Syrian sides of the Bab Al Hawa and Jarablus crossings on the border with Turkey.

However, Iraqi officials said Syrian government forces appeared to have regained control of one of the two crossings with Iraq that had been taken by rebels.

The LCC network of Syrian activists yesterday reported at least 19 people killed across the country. In addition to the clashes in Damascus and Aleppo, the group said fighting took placed in areas around Lattakia, Homs, Daraa, and on the outskirts of Damascus.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said he was closely monitoring the escalating conflict amid fears that Syria's chemical weapons could be used against Israel.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

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