x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

'Desperate' regime fires more Scuds at rebels

Syrian forces have fired more Scud-type missiles, Nato said yesterday as renewed clashes broke out at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

DAMASCUS // Syrian forces have fired more Scud-type missiles, Nato said yesterday as renewed clashes broke out at the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.

Nato's chief called the repeated use of such weapons the "acts of a desperate regime approaching collapse" and said it underscored the need for Nato Patriot missile batteries to be stationed in Turkey, a Nato member.

"I can confirm that we have detected the launch of Scud-type missiles. We strongly regret that act," Anders Fogh Rasmussen said. Nato said there had been multiple launches on Thursday morning.

US and Nato officials say Syrian forces first fired Scud missiles, or some variation, this month from a base near Damascus at a target in northern Syria, more than 200 kilometres away.

Although large and inaccurate, they are capable of travelling much greater distances than artillery, and are less vulnerable to being shot down than attack helicopters or fighter jets.

The Syrian government has denied using ballistic missiles, and when first accused said Nato was scaremongering and seeking to justify military intervention in the region.

Iran, a major ally of president Bashar Al Assad, says Nato risks igniting a world war by deploying a missile shield in the region.

Patriot missile batteries able to intercept Scuds and military aircraft,are being deployed in southern Turkey, near the frontier with the restive Aleppo province.

"The fact that such missiles are used in Syria emphasises the need for effective defence protection of our ally Turkey," Mr Rasmussen said. He stressed they were defensive, not offensive weapons.

No Syrian missiles have hit Turkey, but mortar and artillery fire has, with Turkish military units shooting back in response.

Sporadic fighting continued across much of the country yesterday. The traditional Friday protests that characterised the uprising when it started, in March 2011, have now largely been replaced by armed conflict between the rebel factions, loosely gathered under the Free Syrian Army banner, and regime loyalists in the army and security forces.

Artillery and mortar fire hit southern suburbs of Damascus, one of the key battlegrounds. Some refugees from Yarmouk, the latest area to be engulfed by the fighting in the south of the capital, have started to return home, with residents reporting that an informal agreement appeared to have been struck between rebels and the regime not to conduct military operations there. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting resumed there yesterday just hours after thousands of refugees returned to the area.

Syrian officials said the outbreak of fighting in Yarmouk was the fault of "terrorists", their term for the armed opposition and its supporters. In a letter to the United Nations, Syria's foreign ministry said radical Islamists had used heavy machineguns and mortars in the densely populated area, driving civilians away.

"Syria has maintained contacts with Palestinian official and non-official political figures and movements for not involving the Palestinian people in the Syrian events, and to keep them away from the terrorists who have worked to implicate them since the outset of events," the letters said, according to Sana, the official news agency.

In Aleppo, a rebel commander claimed his unit had fired warning shots at an airliner as it prepared to take off. Rebel forces have declared all airport traffic, both military and civilian, a legitimate target, accusing the regime of shipping in weapons on non-military aircraft.

Damascus airport, while technically open, is effectively closed to civil aviation, with vehicles on the road to and from the terminals coming under fire on the main motorway linking it to Damascus.



* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters