Sunday 18 February 2018

Syrian troops drive opposition from capital as 300 people killed

Albert Aji in Damascus

SYRIAN troops and tanks drove rebels from a Damascus neighbourhood where some of the heaviest of this week's fighting in the capital left cars gutted and fighters' bodies in the streets.

More than 300 people were killed in a single day yesterday, activists said, as the military struggled to regain momentum after a stunning bombing against the regime's leadership.

A fourth member of President Bashar Assad's inner circle, national security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of wounds he suffered in Wednesday's bomb blast, which went off during a high-level security meeting in Damascus, the government announced.

The bombing has been a resounding blow to Mr Assad, killing his defence minister and his influential brother-in-law along with another security official, all central to directing the crackdown on the uprising against his rule.

The blast, six days of sustained fighting in neighbourhoods across the heart of the capital and the fall of several border posts into rebel hands have pointed to the unravelling of Mr Assad's grip on power.

Regime troops regained control of the district of Midan in the southern part of Damascus yesterday and eagerly took journalists on a tour to prove it. But rebels launched new fighting in several other districts of the capital, activists said.

The fighting came as Muslims around much of the world began marking Islam's annual Ramadan fast, abstaining from food or drink from sunrise to sunset.

In a sign of the increasing sectarian split in Syria, the mainly Sunni opposition said it was starting the fast yesterday, along with Saudi Arabia and most Sunni-led Arab nations. The regime, meanwhile, said it would begin today, as is its ally, Shi'ite-led Iran.

Battles involving troops bringing in tanks, helicopters and mortars have turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.

Damascus activist Khaled al-Shami, contacted via Skype, said rebels carried out a "tactical" retreat early yesterday to spare civilians further shelling after five days of intense clashes between opposition fighters and regime forces.

Rebels continued to strike elsewhere in the capital yesterday. They attacked a police station on Khaled bin Waleed Street, where heavy fighting was going on, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Also yesterday, the UN Security Council voted to extend the mission of 300 unarmed observers in Syria for 30 days.

The team was meant to oversee a ceasefire that was supposed to begin in mid-April but never took hold. In recent weeks, violence has kept the observers largely confined to their hotels.

The vote extends the mission, which was set to expire yesterday, for 30 days, though it can be extended if Syrian troops stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and the overall level of violence drops.

On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a resolution backed by Western nations that would have imposed new sanctions on Mr Assad's regime.

Irish Independent

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