x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syrian rocket attack on mosque in Palestinian refugee camp kills 25

Deaths come as vice president admits that neither side is capable of winning civil war.

A Free Syrian Army fighter checks for a jet during an operation to take control of the sprawling Al Mosthat military base at the own of Tal Sheen in the Aleppo province.
A Free Syrian Army fighter checks for a jet during an operation to take control of the sprawling Al Mosthat military base at the own of Tal Sheen in the Aleppo province.

BEIRUT // Syrian fighter jets bombed the Palestinian Yarmouk camp in Damascus yesterday, killing at least 25 people who were sheltering in a mosque, opposition activists said. It happened in an area where rebels had been trying to advance into the capital.

It came as the Syrian vice president, Faruq Al Sharaa, said in an interview to be published today that neither his government nor the rebels fighting to overthrow it were capable of a decisive victory.

"No opposition can end the battle militarily, just as the security forces and army cannot achieve a decisive conclusion," he told Al Akhbar, a pro-Damascus Lebanese newspaper.

The Yarmouk attack was part of a month-long campaign by president Bashar Al Assad's forces to eject rebels fighting to overthrow him from positions hemming in Damascus. It came a day after warplanes bombed rebels on the road to Damascus international airport.

Yarmouk, on the southern fringes of Damascus, falls within a swathe of territory, running from the east to the south-west of the capital, from where rebels hope to storm into the main redoubt of 42 years of Assad family rule.

The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, appealed for an immediate halt to the attacks.

"We call on the warring sides in Syria to spare the Palestinian people and their camps in Syria," he said, adding that bombardments of refugee camps "must be stopped immediately".

Opposition activists said the deaths in Yarmouk, to which refugees had fled from other fighting in nearby suburbs, were caused by a rocket, fired by a warplane, that hit the mosque.

A video posted on YouTube showed bodies and body parts scattered on the stairs of what appeared to be the mosque.

It was the first reported aerial attack on Yarmouk since the popular uprising against Assad erupted 21 months ago and evolved, after he tried to smash it with military force, from peaceful street protests into an armed insurgency.

Syria is home to more that 500,000 Palestinian refugees, most of them living in Yarmouk.

Both Mr Al Assad's government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels have enlisted and armed Palestinians as the uprising has mushroomed into a civil war.

Heavy fighting broke out 12 days ago between Palestinians loyal to Mr Al Assad and Syrian rebels, together with a brigade of Palestinian fighters known as Liwaa Al Asifah (Storm Brigade).

After yesterday's air raid, clashes flared anew between Palestinians from the pro-Assad Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -General Command (PFLP-GC) and Syrian rebels together with other Palestinian fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. Some PFLP-GC fighters were killed, the London-based Observatory said.

The battlefield accounts could not be independently verified due to restrictions on media access. Opposition activists and the Observatory also said many families were trying to escape the internal Yarmouk clashes.

Meanwhile, the army's infantry college in northern Aleppo was captured on Saturday after five days of fighting, according to a rebel commander with the powerful Islamist Tawheed Brigade. It was the latest in a string of military installations to fall to the rebels.

Insurgents had first reported seizing the college on Saturday, but the Observatory said later that day that fierce fighting was still going on.

The Tawheed commander whose brigade took part in the assault said the rebels had surrounded the college, located 16km north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, three weeks ago. "At least 100 soldiers have been taken prisoner and 150 decided to join us," he said. "The soldiers were all hungry because of the siege."

Forty thousand Syrians have now been killed in what has become the most protracted and devastating of the Arab popular uprisings since early 2011.

Desperate food shortages are growing in parts of the country and residents of Aleppo say fistfights and dashes across the civil war front lines have become part of the daily struggle to secure even basic necessities such as a loaf of bread.

Damascus has accused western powers of backing what it says is a Sunni Islamist "terrorist" campaign to topple Mr Al Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect affiliated with Shiite Islam.

It says US and European concerns about the possibility of regime forces resorting to the use of chemical weapons could serve as a pretext for military intervention. But western powers have been wary of direct action due to the ethnic and religious complexities and the lack of a UN consensus due to Russia's support for Mr Al Assad.