x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Warplanes pound Damascus suburbs

Envoy meets Chinese minister in bid to stop bloodshed but regime continues onslaught.

Buildings are damaged after a Syrian Air Force fighter jet fired missiles at Erbeen, near Damascus. Government jets carried out five strikes in the eastern Ghouta district, a rebel stronghold close to the capital, human rights activists say.
Buildings are damaged after a Syrian Air Force fighter jet fired missiles at Erbeen, near Damascus. Government jets carried out five strikes in the eastern Ghouta district, a rebel stronghold close to the capital, human rights activists say.

BEIRUT // Syrian warplanes pounded opposition strongholds around Damascus and in the north yesterday as president Bashar Al Assad's forces intensified air strikes following the failure of a UN-backed ceasefire, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers reports from a network of activists on the ground, said that government jets carried out five strikes in the eastern Ghouta district, a rebel stronghold close to the capital.

Three air strikes also hit the rebel-held city of Maarat Al Numan, which straddles a key supply route from Damascus to Aleppo and has become a main front in the civil war.

No casualties were reported in the strikes, the Observatory said.

However, at least 185 people were killed nationwide in air strikes and artillery shelling the day before, pushing the total death toll since the conflict began in March last year to more than 36,000, according to the Observatory's president, Rami Abdul Rahman. At least 47 soldiers were also killed on Tuesday, the Observatory said.

Syria's crisis began as a peaceful uprising against the Al Assad regime inspired by the Arab Spring, but it quickly morphed into a civil war. The international community remains at a loss about how to stop the war.

A temporary truce timed to coincide with Eid Al Adha last week failed to take hold as more than 500 people were killed in fighting during the four-day period.

The United States and other western and Arab nations have called on Mr Al Assad to step down, while Russia, China and Iran continue to back him. The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, yesterday met the Chinese foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, to solicit Beijing's support for international efforts to stop the bloodshed.

Mr Brahimi said he hoped "China can play an active role in solving the events in Syria".

Mr Yang said that China is willing to work with the international community to make continuous efforts to achieve a "fair, peaceful and appropriate" resolution, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

In the past weeks, the regime has intensified air strikes on rebel positions and strongholds, particularly Maarat Al Numan, a city of 180,000 people that fell to rebel forces on October 10.

A former resident of the city said more than 70 homes had been levelled as a result of air bombardments this week alone.

"The Syrian air force doesn't leave the skies. When the warplane goes, the helicopter comes," the resident who identified himself as Ahmad said yesterday.

Most of the city's inhabitants have fled due to heavy fighting, Ahmad said.

Rebel groups, including the Al Qaeda-inspired, Jabhat Al Nusra, had flocked to the area to defend it, he added.

The inability to sustain even a limited truce has raised fears of a prolonged conflict in Syria that could drag in its neighbours such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

The Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, on Tuesday expressed "great sadness" that the holiday ceasefire had failed and said his government was done talking to Mr Al Assad's regime.

That prompted angry comments from the Syrian government against its former ally.

A Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, accused Turkey of having "destructive policies" against Damascus and claimed Mr Davutoglu, was "targeting the security and stability" of the country.

The spokesman insisted it was the unwillingness of Turkey and Gulf states to cease supporting the rebels that doomed the truce, the state-run Sana news agency reported late on Tuesday.

Damascus views the rebels as terrorists and accuses them of being foot soldiers in a foreign plot to destroy Syria.

Also yesterday, Sana said a bomb hidden in a rubbish bag exploded in an area near Damascus that is home to a Shiite Muslim shrine, killing six people and wounding 13. The Observatory said at least eight people were killed.