x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Syria rebels claim to have shot top air force officer

Rebels claim responsibility for assassinating one of Syria’s foremost experts in aviation as he left a friend's home in north Damascus.

DAMASCUS // Syrian rebels claimed responsibility for the assassination of an air force general on Monday.

State television yesterday confirmed “terrorists assassinated Gen Abdullah Mahmoud Al Khalidi in Rukn Al Din”. No further details were given but a security source said the general was shot dead on Monday evening as he left a friend’s home in north Damascus. He was in charge of training the air force, according to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) posting on Facebook.

The father of four was considered one of Syria’s foremost experts in aviation.

President Bashar Al Assad’s regime retaliated with air power against rebels across the country and it has intensified air strikes against rebel-held areas in recent days, with more than 60 raids on Monday, the most in a single day so far, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It was the first time fighter jets hit targets inside Damascus, the  watchdog said. Only helicopter gunships had previously been used to strafe inside the capital.

Activists from the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) and the Observatory reported air raids on several suburbs of Damascus, including the areas of Arbeen, Zamalka and Douma. The warplane dropped four bombs on the east Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar, near the opposition-held suburb of Zamalka, where rebel fighters were locked in clashes with the army, the Observatory said.

Warplanes also hit a strategic northern city yesterday as ground troops pushed forward in an intensified effort to recapture the area recently taken by rebels, activists said.

The air strikes targeted Maarat Al Numan, located on the motorway connecting Syria’s two main cities, Aleppo and Damascus. It was captured by rebels on October 10 and in the weeks since, the regime has subjected the city and the area to heavy air bombardments.

The rebel hold on Maarat Al Numan has disrupted the regime’s ability to send supplies and reinforcements to Aleppo, where government forces have been bogged down since July in a bloody fight for control of Syria’s largest city. Rebel advances over the past week in Aleppo have added urgency to opening the route.

“The regime wants to recapture Maarat Al Numan because it links Damascus with Aleppo,” said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory.

In yesterday’s air raids on Maarat Al Numan, the Observatory said four people, three of them girls, were killed. The LCC put the death toll from the air strikes and ground fighting at 19.

Syrian troops and rebels clashed in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, activists said. The LCC and the Observatory said the fighting broke out overnight, but they had no word on casualties.

Palestinian refugees in Syria tried to stay on the sidelines when the uprising began. But many Palestinian youths have joined the fight as they became angered by the mounting violence.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, expressed “great sadness” yesterday that the Eid Al Adha ceasefire did not hold.

He said Turkey, once a strong ally of Mr Al Assad, would not engage in dialogue with the Syrian government.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, accused Mr Assad’s regime, with the complicity of the international community, of waging a “war of extermination” against Syrian people.

Jordanian police yesterday were detaining 61 Syrians who were travelling in three lorries near the southern town of Maan, a statement said, but it did not elaborate.

* With additional reporting by Associated Press and Reuters