x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Thousands flee Syria as fighting rages

The regime claims to have retaken a key suburb in the capital but the rebels are in control of several border crossing. Meanwhile, ordinary people are escaping the crisis by fleeing to Lebanon by the thousand.

Syrian soldeirs celebrate in the Al Midan area in Damascus after claiming to have
Syrian soldeirs celebrate in the Al Midan area in Damascus after claiming to have "cleaned" the district of "terrorists". But rebels said that they had made a tactical withdrawal.

BEIRUT // Syrian government troops fought to regain control of Damascus six days after intense fighting broke out in parts of the city, as thousands of Syrians yesterday fled the escalating crisis in the country.

Syrian state television reported that security forces had driven rebels from the besieged area of Al Midan, with a rebel commander saying they had made "a tactical withdrawal".

Opposition fighters clashed with government forces in other parts of the capital yesterday, according to activists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said soldiers opened fire to disperse a large demonstration in Aleppo, the country's commercial centre, without saying if there were any casualties.

As the violence has intensified, thousands of people have fled to Lebanon. Up to 30,000 Syrian refugees may have crossed into Lebanon in the past 48 hours, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.

The UNHCR said yesterday initial estimates indicated that some 18,000 people fled across the Masnaa border into Lebanon's Bekaa region on Wednesday and Thursday.

The influx of Syrians adds to the thousands who have already fled into Lebanon since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad began in March 2011, including an estimated 30,000 registered Syrian refugees.

"We have gone from an average of 1,000 a day to possibly up to 30,000 in the last 48 hours. This is really significant, it is clearly a massive upscaling in displacement," Sybella Wilkes, a UNHCR spokeswoman, told Reuters.

While government troops were fighting for control in Damascus, areas along Syria's borders appeared vulnerable. Border crossings between Syria and Iraq, and Syria and Turkey, were also reportedly in rebel-control.

Hisham Bekhtyar, Syria's intelligence chief, died yesterday from wounds he sustained in Wednesday's bombing in Damascus that targeted a meeting of Mr Al Assad's senior security officials.

In addition to Bekhtyar, three other members of the Al Assad inner circle were killed in the attack - Dawood Rajha, Syria's defence minister, Asef Shawkat, the deputy defence minister and Mr Al Assad's brother-in-law, and General Hassan Turkmani, the head of the regime's crisis cell for the uprising.

Funerals for Rajha, Shawkat and Turkmani were held in Damascus yesterday.

Mr Al Assad was seen briefly in video shown on Syrian state television on Thursday, but has so far not spoken publicly about Wednesday's deadly attack.

In an interview yesterday, Russia's ambassador to France said he believed the Syrian president may be willing to step down. Alexandre Orlov told French RFI radio when the Syrian president accepted a recent international statement calling for a transition towards a democratic system in Syria, it was an indication he may be ready to step aside.

"This means he has accepted to leave, but in an orderly way," Mr Orlov said.

However, the Syrian government quickly denounced Mr Orlov's comments as being "completely devoid of truth".

The head of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), Abdelbasset Saida, said yesterday that the regime was "going through its last days", but predicted a major escalation in violence in the country.

More than 300 people, most of them civilians, were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights - making it the worst day of bloodshed in the uprising.

The observatory said the death toll included at least 98 government troops. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), said 217 civilians were killed on Thursday.

Yesterday, at least 145 people were reported dead in fighting across Syria, including 26 in Damascus, 25 in areas on the city's outskirts and 23 in Idlib, according to the LCC, a network of opposition activists.

Diplomatic efforts to end the crisis suffered a serious setback on Thursday when Russia and China vetoed a western-backed UN Security Council resolution calling for tougher action against the Syrian government if it did not cease attacks.

It was the third time Russia and China had used their veto-power on a Syria resolution since the crisis began.

Yesterday China argued that the draft was not balanced and did not put enough pressure on opposition groups.

Susan Rice, the United States' ambassador to the UN, said that the council had "failed utterly" and that the US would look for alternative ways to put pressure on the Al Assad regime.

The council tried to salvage some of the situation yesterday, with members unanimously voting to extend the mandate of the UN monitoring mission to Syria by 30 days.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned western powers yesterday not to take unilateral action against the Al Assad regime. "In the opinion of the Russian president, any attempts to act outside the UN Security Council will be ineffective and only undermine the authority of this international organisation," news agencies quoted the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

But Russia is to delay its controversial shipment of three attack helicopters and an air defence system to Syria until full security control is restored there, the Interfax news agency reported.

zconstantine@thenational.ae

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