x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Assad warplane bombs busy petrol station, Syria groups claim

Meanwhile, helicopter crashes after clipping commercial airliner carrying 200 passengers.

DAMASCUS // A Syrian warplane dropped a barrel of explosives on a crowded petrol station in the north-east of the country yesterday, killing at least 30 civilians, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

People had been lining up for petrol and diesel near Ain Issa at the time when the crude bomb caused a huge explosion and fire, the opposition group said. The death count was expected to rise.

The village is about 32 kilometres from the Tal Al Abyad border post, seized by rebels on Wednesday after a lengthy battle with government forces.

One activist said that the filling station was the only one still operating in the area.

There were conflicting reports earlier when a military helicopter was said to have crashed in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

Syrian state media reported that the helicopter's rotor had clipped the tail of a Syrian Arab Airlines plane carrying 200 passengers. The plane was then said to have landed safely at Damascus airport.

Initially, the Observatory had said rebels had shot down the helicopter, but that claim was not repeated elsewhere.

Clashes were reported yesterday across Syria, including Damascus and in the second city, Aleppo.

In Aleppo, regime forces bombarded the rebel districts of Hanano, Inzarat, Sakhur, Shaar and Salhin along with Al Bab and Bazaa. Shelling and clashes were reported in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor, Idlib in the north-west, and Homs and Hama in the centre.

On the political front, diplomats from more than 60 nations, the Arab League and Syrian defectors met in The Hague to toughen and improve coordination of sanctions against Bashar Al Assad's regime.

"We need vigorous implementation," the Dutch foreign minister, Uri Rosenthal, told the Friends of Syria working group. "Sanctions will only have an impact if they are carried out effectively."

The meeting came after the EU agreed earlier this month on the need to increase sanctions against Mr Al Assad's inner circle as the world struggles to resolve the bloody 18-month conflict.

"It's not a question of whether he will leave but when he will leave," Mr Rosenthal said of Mr Al Assad.

Abdo Husameddin, a former Syrian oil minister who defected from the regime in March, told the BBC that Mr Assad's extended family may have billions of dollars hidden abroad.

The international community has struggled to find common ground on ways to halt the bloodshed, with Russia and China vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions condemning or threatening sanctions against the regime.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned yesterday that the Syrian government and rebels seemed intent on fighting to the bitter end, and said the international body might offer a new strategy for peace.

More than 27,000 people have been killed in violence across Syria since March last year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The UN puts the figure at more than 20,000.

* With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press