x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria rebels shoot down helicopter

A Syrian regime helicopter has plunged to the ground engulfed in flames east of Damascus amid rebel claims they had shot it down.

An image grab taken from a video shows a burning Syrian combat helicopter crashing as fierce fighting gripped east of the capital Damascus.
An image grab taken from a video shows a burning Syrian combat helicopter crashing as fierce fighting gripped east of the capital Damascus.

BEIRUT // A Syrian regime helicopter plunged to the ground engulfed in flames yesterday amid rebel claims that they had shot it down.

Video footage posted online by opposition activists showed the helicopter on fire and streaming black smoke as someone in the background shouts "Allah-hu-Akhbar", or God is great.

Rebels shot down the helicopter over the district of Qaboun, just outside Damascus, activists said.

"It was flying over the eastern part of the city and firing all morning," an activist calling himself Abu Bakr said. "The rebels had been trying to hit it for about an hour. Finally they did."

Syrian state television reported that an aircraft had crashed, but did not say how.

Rebel fighters have claimed before to have shot down regime aircraft. Last month they said they had downed a Russian-made MiG fighter, but the regime blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.

However, if the rebels - who are generally lightly armed - were responsible for shooting down the helicopter yesterday, it would represent a significant boost in their armed campaign against the regime of Bashar Al Assad. His forces have been able to carry out air strikes with impunity.

There were also reports yesterday of intense fighting between rebels and regime forces backed by helicopter gunships in Jobar, east of the capital and close to Qaboun.

"The army is focusing its operations on the east of Damascus," a rebel commander who identified himself only as Selim said. "Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army is trying to shift the battle back into Damascus."

Areas around the capital have come under intense attacks in recent days, as government forces have tried to regain control from rebels. Some of the worst violence has been in the town of Daraya on the south-western edge of Damascus.

On Sunday, opposition activists said they found the bodies of more than 300 people in the town - mostly young men, but also women and children. They described the killings as a massacre carried out by forces loyal to the Assad regime.

Syria's state news agency, Sana, said security forces had "cleansed" the town of "armed terrorist groups".

Yesterday, the European Union condemned what it described as a massacre in Daraya, but stressed that the circumstances of the killings were unclear.

"We regret and strongly condemn this sort of violence. It's totally unacceptable," said Michael Mann, spokesman for the EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon is calling for an immediate, independent investigation into the massacre. The opposition Local Coordination Committees reported at least 157 deaths across Syria yesterday, including 88 people killed in and around Damascus, most of them in Zamalka, next to Jobar.

As the fierce fighting continues, more civilians have sought to escape. About 9,000 Syrians have massed along the border with Turkey as they wait for security checks and for more refugee camps to be set up to accommodate the latest influx.

"Six thousand refugees are waiting on the Syrian side of the Oncupinar border crossing in Kilis province, and 3,000 others at border crossings into Hatay province," a Turkish diplomat said.

Since the uprising began in March last year, more than 200,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

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