x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Syrians given no respite on New Year's Day

Aleppo airport closed and Damascus air strikes continue as efforts continue to identify bodies of dozens of torture victims.

DAMASCUS // Syrians woke up on New Year's Day to air strikes near Damascus, while Aleppo airport was closed after repeated rebel attacks, casting doubts on the hopes of diplomatic drives to end the 21-month conflict.

The violence came a day after activists reported finding the corpses of dozens of people who had been tortured, another sign of the gruesome nature of the conflict, and as the regime said it welcomed any initiative for talks to end it.

Warplanes bombed the northeastern and southwestern suburbs of Damascus in a fresh bid to push rebels further from the capital, and troops attacked insurgent strongholds on the road to Damascus airport.

"Three air strikes by MiG planes have targeted Daraya since the morning, and the shelling is continuing," said Abu Kinan, an activist from the town south-west of Damascus.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the raids came amid fierce clashes near the towns of Bait Saham and Aqraba along the airport road, and that the shelling killed three civilians in nearby Ziabiyeh.

Battles have raged for weeks outside Damascus, where insurgents have set up rear bases.

Analysts said the army was set on taking total control of Damascus and its immediate surroundings to create conditions necessary for future dialogue.

In northern Syria, where insurgents hold huge swathes of territory, authorities announced the temporary closure of Aleppo international airport after rebel attacks in recent days.

"There have been continued attempts by opposition militants to target civilian aircraft, which could cause a humanitarian disaster," an airport official said.

But he added that the airport would be closed only for a "very short period of time" while the army tried to regain control of rebel-held areas around it.

The Observatory reported that the closure came after a blast, probably due to rebel shelling, hit a civilian aircraft as it took off on Saturday.

2012 ended in Syria with the gruesome discovery on Monday of what activists said were dozens of corpses in a neighbourhood of Damascus.

"Thirty bodies were found in the Barzeh district. They bore signs of torture and have so far not been identified," the Observatory said.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission gave a higher estimate of 50 bodies, saying "their heads were cut and disfigured to the point that it was no longer possible to identify" them. A video posted online by activists showed the bodies of three young boys with their hands tied behind their backs and their throats slit.

Their bodies were discovered in Jubar. The authenticity of the footage could not be verified.

On the diplomatic front, the Syrian prime minister, Wael Al Halaqi, said on Monday that the government was open to talks aimed at resolving the conflict that monitors say has now killed more than 46,000 people.

"The government is working to support the national reconciliation project and will respond to any regional or international initiative that would solve the current crisis through dialogue and peaceful means and prevent foreign intervention in Syria's internal affairs," Mr Halaqi told parliament.

The UN-Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, said on Sunday that he had crafted a ceasefire plan "that could be adopted by the international community".

The proposal involved a ceasefire, the formation of a government and an election plan, and was based on an agreement that world powers had reached in Geneva in June.

The premier said the revolt must be resolved only by the Syrian people, adding that the country was on track to "declare victory over its enemies".

The opposition has already rejected the Geneva accord, insisting that Assad must go before any dialogue can take place.