x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Syria regime continues to shell rebels in battle for Damascus

Unconfirmed reports suggest 123 were killed in fighting yesterday.

DAMASCUS // Syrian government forces fought with the Free Syrian Army around Damascus yesterday, including near the international airport, with heavy shelling of rebel-held suburbs.

Explosions could be heard throughout the day across the southern and eastern edges of the city, with residents reporting no let-up after weeks of conflict on the capital's outskirts.

Shellfire, bombing and air strikes have become routine in Damascus suburbs, with scores of blasts heard each day. By comparison, just a few months ago, fighting so close to the capital was much more sporadic.

Checkpoints guarding roads into central areas of Damascus have multiplied and soldiers more thoroughly check vehicles seeking to enter the city. That, combined with the closure of side roads into and out of Damascus, has created hours-long traffic jams, further stifled commerce and added to the sense of the city being sealed off.

"The situation is dangerous and it seems to get worse all the time," said a resident of southern Damascus. "The way things are going, we will all be killed and the entire country will be destroyed," he said.

Opposition activists with the Local Coordination Committees reported 123 people killed nationwide by late afternoon yesterday, 88 of them in Damascus and the others in outlying provinces where there has been sustained major fighting for months. Those numbers could not be independently confirmed.

Sana, the state-run news agency, said the security forces had inflicted heavy losses on "terrorist groups" in Damascus suburbs yesterday, as well as in the central cities of Hama and Idlib. Much of Idlib province is in rebel hands, according to residents and refugees from northern Syria.

There was no official comment on the supposed defection of Jihad Makdisi, the urbane, English-speaking public face of the Syrian foreign ministry. Various unconfirmed reports on Monday said he had either been sacked from his job as government spokesman or had defected.

State media also reported the assassination of Naji Asaad, a journalist with Tishreen newspaper, a government mouthpiece. He was killed in front of his house in Tadamon, in southern Damascus, yesterday.

Tadamon has become one of the major flashpoints in the battle for Syria's capital, a front line where rebels and loyalists to the president, Bashar Al Assad, frequently clash. Earlier this year, regime forces claimed to have pushed rebels out of the area only for them to return in greater numbers.

Many civilians have now fled areas under bombardment, such as Saqba, Qadam, Muadamiya and the Ghouta region, seeking the relative safety of other neighbourhoods.

Government forces continued operations in Daraya yesterday, after weeks of conflict there. Residents say all basic services have been cut off and almost 200 people killed since last month.

Syrian officials say they have killed large numbers of "terrorists" in the area, and claim to have made progress in taking back the town, about five kilometres from the heart of Damascus.

The intensifying conflict around the Syrian capital prompted the United Nations to withdraw non-essential international staff members on Monday, although relief operations will continue.

Much UN aid is delivered by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc), with Syrian volunteer medics and logisticians making journeys out to danger areas to deliver humanitarian supplies.

As the conflict escalates, both Nato and Germany yesterday echoed Monday's warning by the United States that any attempt by the Syrian authorities to use chemical weapons would bring a firm response.

"The possible use of chemical weapons would be completely unacceptable to the whole international community," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato's secretary general.

US officials have saying this week that Syria has begun mixing chemicals that could be used in weapons, including artillery strikes.

Damascus has insisted it would never use such weapons against its own people, and accused the US and Nato of seeking to justify a potential attack.

Some opposition activists inside Syria said it was unlikely regime forces would deploy chemical weapons, precisely because it would prompt international intervention likely to swing the battle for the country in the rebels' favour.

Nato yesterday approved a request by Turkey to deploy Patriot missile batteries on its southern border with Syria, to bolster air defences. Numerous Syrian shells and mortars have crossed the frontier, adding to tensions between Ankara and Damascus. Once close allies, the two have fallen out over the uprising.

More than 42,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in March last year, according to rights' monitors, most of them civilians.

What began with isolated protests demanding political reforms has spiralled into a bloody civil war and proxy conflict pitting the West, Turkey and Arab Gulf states, which support the rebels, against the Syrian regime and its allies in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran and Lebanon.