x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syrian rebels warned by Qatar not to kill Iranian hostages

Turkey retaliates for fifth day in a row with eight mortars after as another shell hits near the town of Akcakale.

Qatar, a major supporter of Syrian rebels, yesterday urged them not to kill Iranians abducted two months ago near Damascus, after the captors threatened to start executing their 48 prisoners.

The Qatari prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, made the appeal following a request from Iran, an ally of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, to secure a release of the captives.

The Syrian rebel Al Baraa brigade said on Thursday it would start killing the Iranians unless Mr Al Assad, who is battling an 18-month-old uprising, freed Syrian opposition detainees and stopped shelling civilian areas.

A statement on the brigade's Facebook page yesterday said it had extended its deadline by 24 hours at the request of mediators. "As a general policy in the state of Qatar, we don't accept the killing of prisoners," said Sheikh Hamad. "We also don't accept further escalation of the situation in Syria. We agree that all parties have their demands but the basic principle is not to kill prisoners."

The Baraa Brigade, which initially threatened to kill the Iranians after seizing them in early August, said in a video that was released on Thursday that negotiations over their fate had "failed as a result of the betrayal of the Iranian and Syrian regimes".

"We give the Syrian and Iranian regimes 48 hours to release prisoners, stop the shelling against unarmed civilians and the random killing of innocents or we will kill an Iranian prisoner for each martyr," said a rebel wearing camouflage fatigues.

The rebels said the captives were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Tehran denied the accusation and said the men were pilgrims who had been planning to visit a Shiite Muslim shrine on the outskirts of Damascus. Iranian media later quoted the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, as saying some were retired soldiers or Revolutionary Guards.

Sheikh Hamad also urged Arab states to take action in Syria, given the impasse between major powers at the United Nations Security Council.

"The situation in the Arab world generally should move and something clear should be done," he said.

Yesterday, Turkish artillery fired toward Syria for the fifth day in a row, minutes after a Syrian shell landed in Turkish territory.

The shell landed some 200 metres inside the border, near the town of Akcakale, the site of a similar strike on Wednesday.

The mortar round hit the grounds of a public building without causing casualties, Turkey's NTV news channel reported. It added that the building had been evacuated beforehand.

A short time later, eight mortars were heard being fired from Turkey.

The town's mayor, Abdulhakim Ayhan, confirmed that Turkish artillery had immediately returned fire. He said shrapnel from the Syrian mortar had caused some damage to a grain depot, but no one had been injured.

The Anadolu Agency, Turkey's state news agency, reported that Mr Al Assad's forces had been shelling the town of Tal Abyad, just across from Akcakale, which is controlled by Syrian rebels.

"Thank God there were no victims," said Mr Ayhan. "Turkish artillery immediately responded to the shots that came from Syria."

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called for Mr Al Assad to be replaced by the vice president, Faruq Al Shara.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued to rock the key city of Aleppo yesterday and rebels lost ground in Damascus.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said some of the heaviest fighting yesterday was in Aleppo province, where at least three people were killed and scores were wounded when the army pounded the town of Manbaj in Aleppo's suburbs.

And in central Damascus, one person was killed in a car-bomb attack on Khaled bin Al Walid Avenue, the street in which the police headquarters is located, the state media reported.

Syria's defence minister said on Saturday that the government was ready to give amnesty to rebels who repent but those who don't "will be crushed under the feet of our soldiers".

Gen Fahd Jassem Al Freij, who became defence minister in July after his predecessor was assassinated, also claimed that the regime was gaining the upper hand.

"The most dangerous parts of the conspiracy have been passed and the killing is on its way to decline," he said.

* Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse