x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Damascus suburb hit by tanks and mortar fire

Lightly armed Free Syria Army rebels unable to hold Daraya against Assad's troops after the town is bombarded for 24 hours by heavy artillery. Phil Sands reports from southern Damascus.

SOUTHERN DAMASCUS // Troops and tanks attacked the town of Daraya on the southern edges of Damascus yesterday following a 24-hour mortar and heavy artillery bombardment.

Activists said the opening barrage killed at least 15 people, including a mother and two children, and wounded another 150. No details were available last night as to how many may have subsequently been killed.

However, opposition groups have reported summary executions taking place in other areas overrun by government forces.

Skirmishes between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and loyalist military units broke out on the edge of Daraya but residents said the lightly armed rebels could not prevent the larger, better equipped force of Bashar Al Assad's forces, backed by tanks, from quickly pushing towards the town centre. A thick column of black smoke rose above Daraya yesterday afternoon, apparently from a building set ablaze by mortar fire. Periodic explosions sounded from the town, which was sealed off by security forces, reinforced by locally recruited pro-government militia groups, known as popular committees.

Overnight, a steady stream of shells had been shot from military bases in the mountains north of Damascus.

Entrances into central Damascus from the south were cut for a second day yesterday as the assault took place.

The main motorway connecting Damascus to Jordan was shut and public transport halted. Food supplies to southern neighbourhoods stopped as part of the blockade.

Daraya, a town of 200,000 inhabitants - mainly Muslim, but with a sizeable Christian minority and a large church - has been involved in the uprising since it began last March.

It is part of the urban sprawl of southern Damascus, a swathe of densely populated middle and working-class districts running around the bottom edge of the capital in which the opposition, and in particular the FSA, has become increasingly dominant.

Military forces loyal to Mr Al Assad, the Syrian president, have been heavily deployed across the area for months but that has done little to prevent neighbourhoods from slipping out of the authorities' hands.

Periodic assaults, such as that launched on Daraya yesterday, have re-established some semblance of central control, only for increased armed resistance to eventually follow. Violence has snowballed.

"The regime can attack Daraya but it will not be able to hold on to it for long. It's too big and would require too many soldiers," said a local resident on condition of anonymity. "The war for Damascus is really only just beginning and it will be long and terrible and may destroy us all."

West of Daraya lies Moadamiya, scene of an assault by regime forces on Tuesday in which 86 of people were killed - many of them executed - according to activists and residents.

North-east of Daraya is Kafa Susa, another area prominent in the rebellion and even closer to the heart of the capital. It too has been subject to regular attacks as government forces first sought to crush peaceful anti-regime dissent there and then tried to defeat a growing armed rebellion.

Crucially for the authorities, the northern edge of Daraya abuts the Damascus military airport in Mezze, a major security installation housing dozens of prisons, secret police compounds, army units and the helicopter forces that have been used to attack restive areas of the capital.

A strong rebel armed presence in Daraya would leave the airport vulnerable to attack.

Residents in Daraya had long been expecting an attack. Regime security forces, including the traffic police, had withdrawn from the town two months ago and, since then, it had been run by local civic-action groups, which had stepped in to do the day-to-day work of the municipal authorities.

Local volunteers had cleaned the streets, established a community police service, run hospitals, set up an independent newspaper and provided psychological support services for children traumatised by the war.

They were preparing to run the education system, anticipating state-run schools would not reopen when the summer holidays end next month.

Activists in Daraya also held regular classes teaching civil liberties and rule of law, and had visited many of the families of more than 1,000 town residents killed since the uprising began, impressing upon them the need for an independent legal process in the prosecution of those responsible for the deaths, rather than seeking eye-for-an-eye revenge.

The Free Syrian Army - held as terrorists by the Syrian regime - did operate in Daraya and had formed a loose, largely symbolic defensive perimeter around the town in its outlying areas. These zones had been mortared regularly since the pull-out of the security forces.

Battles also continued elsewhere in Syria yesterday, including in Aleppo, where the FSA has been facing government forces for more than a month of street fighting.

Regime forces, which have used heavy weapons and jet aircraft to bombard rebel held areas, said they had inflicted "heavy losses" on the insurgents.

Officials in Damascus also announced yesterday they had accepted the appointment of Lakhdar Brahimi as the new UN envoy to Syria.

The veteran Algerian diplomat has said his job will be to try to end a civil war in Syria, although he has given little indication as to how he intends to do so

"We are looking forward to seeing ... what ideas he is giving for potential solutions for the problem here," Faisal Meqdad, Syria's deputy foreign minister, said.

He denied rebel claims that a Japanese journalist who died in the northern city of Aleppo this week was killed by government troops. "Any journalist who behaves in an irresponsible way should expect all these difficult possibilities," he said following a meeting with Babacare Gaye, the head of the outgoing UN mission. Japanese war correspondent Mika Yamamoto was killed on Monday.

The Syrian authorities say they are facing a foreign-backed insurgency by Islamic extremists, citing support of the FSA by the West and Gulf states, which have been supplying the rebels with armaments.

Opposition groups say they have been given no option but to take up arms against the regime after months of peaceful protest were met with deadly violence from the security services rather than genuine political reforms to a decades old autocracy.

More than 20,000 people - mainly civilians, but also rebel fighters and government troops - have been killed in the 17-month uprising.

"There will be no winners in Syria, as the West is betting there will be," Mr Meqdad said. "Syria will win, thanks to its people, its leader [Bashar Al Assad] and its government, which will make the right choices in the midst of these difficult circumstances."

psands@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by the Associated Press