Violence in Syria claims first senior army official
Assassination comes as attacks begin to take toll in Damascus
Gunmen assassinated an army general in Damascus yesterday in the first killing of a high ranking military officer in the Syrian capital since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime began in March, the state-run news agency said.
The attack is a sign that violence in Syria is reaching the tightly controlled capital, which has been relatively quiet compared to other cities. Though there was no immediate claim of responsibility, it could also indicate that rebel soldiers who have risen up in numerous towns are trying to step up action in Damascus.
The state news agency SANA said three gunmen opened fire at Brig Gen Issa al-Khouli in the morning as he left his home. Such assassinations are not uncommon outside Damascus and army officers have been killed in the past, mostly in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib.
Violence in other parts of the country left at least 11 people dead as regime troops pushed into rebel-held neighbourhoods in the restive central city of Homs and shelled the mountain town of Zabadani, north of Damascus.
The UN says that 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from January, when the UN stopped counting because the chaos in the country has made it all but impossible to check figures. Hundreds are reported to have been killed since.
The al-Assad regime disputes the UN figures, claiming terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilise the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime. The Syrian government counters the number of civilian dead by claiming more than 2,000 soldiers and police officers have been killed by terrorists since March.
After Russia and China last weekend vetoed a Western and Arab attempt at the UN to pressure Mr al-Assad to step down, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander said there was no choice now but armed force to oust the president.
Western and Arab countries are considering forming a coalition to help Syria's opposition, though so far there is no sign they intend to give direct aid to the FSA.
The president of Iran, one of Mr al-Assad's top allies, warned Arab countries yesterday not to give aid to the opposition.
Speaking to tens of thousands of supporters in Tehran on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mr Ahmadinejad said countries in the region that have never held free elections are trying to write a "prescription for freedom and elections for others" with US help. "This is a very bitter and most ridiculous joke of history," Mr Ahmadinejad said.
For the past week, Syrian forces have been bombarding rebel-held neighbourhoods in the central city of Homs, aiming to regain control of one of the main cities involved in the uprising. Activists say more than 400 people have been killed in the campaign.
Yesterday, Syrian troops shelled the Baba Amr district in Homs, killing at least 15 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The violence now appears to be spreading through the region. Clashes between pro- and anti-Syria gunmen in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli left two people dead and 12 wounded yesterday in the latest skirmish between Lebanese factions over the crisis in neighbouring Syria, security officials said.
The two sides fired on each other from rival neighbourhoods in Tripoli, one area dominated by Sunnis, the other by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot sect. Officials said clashes started on Friday night and continued sporadically yesterday afternoon.
Mr al-Assad's regime is dominated by Alawites, while the revolt against him has been led by Sunnis.
The violence came a day after state media said 28 people had been killed in two suicide car bomb attacks in the northern city of Aleppo -- which had remained relatively calm over the past year.
State television blamed the bombings on what it described as "armed terrorist gangs", which it said had targeted a military intelligence complex and riot police base but killed civilian bystanders, including several children.