x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rebels claim success in battle for Syrian army base

Syrian military sources and witnesses said the army, backed by tanks and helicopters, has pushed rebels back from the Hanano military base.

BEIRUT // Heavy fighting raged in Aleppo yesterday, as rebels and government security forces battled for control of a key army base in Syria's largest city.

Military sources and witnesses said the Syrian army, backed by tanks and helicopters, had managed to push rebels back from the Hanano military base, after an intense battle began on Friday.

"The rebels had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into this offensive because they desperately need weapons," a Syrian army official told Agence France-Presse.

However, opposition activists reported that rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters seized part of the barracks - one of the largest bases in Aleppo.

Abdullah Yasser, an FSA media coordinator, said the assault was aimed at taking over a position from which Syrian security forces had been attacking rebel positions in Aleppo.

"Hanano is one of the main places from which they are shooting, so taking it over could be a turning point for us," he said.

Several Aleppo neighbourhoods were left without access to drinking water yesterday after the heavy clashes damaged one of the city's main water pipelines, with the opposition and the government blaming each other.

Opposition groups reported that government warplanes fired a missile that hit the pipeline or landed in its vicinity.

"Water was completely cut from several neighbourhoods in the city," Mohammed Saeed, an opposition activist, told the Associated Press. "Electricity was cut and now water. This will only increase the suffering of people."

However, the governor of Aleppo, Mohammed Wahid Akkad, said two water pumps had been hit by "terrorists" - the term that the regime of President Bashar Al Assad uses to describe its opponents.

Mortar rounds or rockets fired from Syria killed a young Iraqi girl and wounded four people in a border town in western Iraq, an army officer and the interior ministry said yesterday. Captain Ali Juwayir from Anbar Operations Command said four mortar rounds hit Al Qaim shortly before midnight on Friday, adding that two homes in the town were struck. Fighting was also reported yesterday in southern Damascus districts, including the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and the adjacent neighbourhoods of Tadamon and Hajer Al Aswad. Opposition activists said Syrian security forces stormed Yarmouk, following an artillery assault on the area to try to root out rebel fighters.

Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers agreed on the need to beef up sanctions against Mr Assad's regime at talks in Cyprus, said Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Markoullis. "There is consensus also on the increase of sanctions in Syria," she said, after saying the bloc's 27 ministers were agreed too on the need to massively strengthen humanitarian aid. But Russia yesterday rejected American calls for more pressure on Mr Al Assad to step down. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said his government was opposed to tougher penalties against the regime, following a meeting with US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, during a summit in the Russian city of Vladivostok.

"Our American partners have a prevailing tendency to threaten and increase pressure, adopt ever more sanctions against Syria and against Iran," Mr Lavrov said. "Russia is fundamentally against this, since for resolving problems you have to engage the countries you are having issues with and not isolate them. Unilateral US sanctions against Syria and Iran increasingly take on an extraterritorial character, directly affecting the interests of Russian business, in particular banks."

Moscow has said it is looking to the United Nations Security Council in an attempt to revive a proposal to end Syria's 18-month conflict, which would see all sides abide by a ceasefire, followed by the formation of a transitional government.

The plan, which was first floated in June, did not make explicit mention of Mr Al Assad relinquishing power. The United States has expressed reservations about the plan, which it says does not include tough consequences for failure to comply.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN's special envoy on the Syria crisis, is preparing to travel to Damascus in a bid to renew peace efforts that have been unable to end the bloodshed.

Mr Brahimi is due in Cairo today for talks with the Arab League, and his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said he is working on "the final details of a plan to visit Damascus".

Fighting persisted across Syria yesterday, with opposition groups reporting clashes including in Idlib, Homs, Deraa and Damascus.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees (LCC) reported at least 148 people were killed across the country, including 77 in Aleppo.

As the crisis in Syria threatens to spill further over into neighbouring countries, late on Friday the Lebanese army arrested Hassan Moqdad, a member of a powerful Shiite clan that kidnapped 20 Syrians and a Turkish national last month.

The Moqdad family said they took the men because one of their relatives had been captured in Syria by rebels.

"It [the army] continues its search for a number of culprits who fled to various Lebanese regions and plans to maintain its work for the release of all hostages," an army statement said, adding that weapons and ammunition had also been seized during the raid in a south Beirut neighbourhood.

 

zconstantine@thenational.ae

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