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Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, has died after a Turkish police officer shot him in an apparent protest at Russia’s involvement in Aleppo.

Several other people were reportedly also injured in the gun attack in Ankara, a day after protests in Turkey over Russian support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The gunman, who was in civilian clothes, opened fire at point blank range as Andrei Karlov made a speech.

He is said to have died in a shootout with police soon afterwards.

According to local reports, Andrei Karlov was rushed to hospital, but his death was later confirmed by the Russian foreign ministry.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone about the attack, the Turkish president’s office said.

Speaking outside the hospital where Andrei Karlov was taken, Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek said the killing was intended to ruin Turkey’s relations with Russia.

The attack was swiftly condemned by other countries.

US state department spokesman John Kirby: “We condemn this act of violence, whatever its source. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family.”

Image source AP

UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson: “Shocked to hear of despicable murder of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey. My thoughts are with his family. I condemn this cowardly attack.”

German Interior minister Thomas de Maiziere said his country stood with Turkey in a common fight against terrorism.

France’s President Francois Hollande “strongly” condemned the killing.

Before the attack happened, a meeting of the Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign ministers had been planned in Moscow for December 20.

According to Russian TV, Ambassador Andrei Karlov had been attending a photo exhibition called “Russia as seen by Turks”.

Video of the event shows him making a speech when gunshots ring out. Eight bullets are said to have been fired.


The camera pulls back to show a smartly dressed gunman, wearing a suit and tie, waving a pistol and shouting in Arabic and Turkish.

The gunman can be heard yelling “Don’t forget about Aleppo, don’t forget about Syria” and uses the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

Turkish officials later identified him as a member of the Ankara riot police, aged 22.

Andrei Karlov, 62, was a veteran diplomat who had served as Soviet ambassador to North Korea for much of the 1980s.

After the fall of the USSR in 1991, Andrei Karlov had a posting as Russian ambassador to South Korea before returning to North Korea for five years in 2001.

Taking up the Ankara posting in July 2013, Andrei Karlov had to grapple with a major diplomatic crisis last year when a Turkish plane shot down a Russian jet close to the Syrian border.

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Vladimir Putin has decided to cancel a planned visit to France amid a row over Syria.

The Russian president had been due to meet his French counterpart Francois Hollande and open a new Orthodox church on October 19.

However, after the French government said talks would be confined to Syria the visit was halted, presidential sources said.

On October 10, Francois Hollande suggested Russia could face war crimes charges over its bombardment of Syria’s city of Aleppo.

The French presidency had told the Russians President Hollande would attend only one event with Vladimir Putin during the visit planned for October 19 – a working meeting on Syria, according to the sources.

But after this Russia “let it be known that it wanted to postpone the visit”, they added.Vladimir Putin Panama Papers

A spokesman for Vladimir Putin confirmed the trip had been canceled, adding that the visit would take place when it becomes “comfortable for President Hollande”.

Despite this Francois Hollande has said he will meet Vladimir Putin at “any time” if it would “further peace”.

The development comes a day after President Hollande told French TV that prosecutions over Syria could take place in the International Criminal Court (ICC).

“These are people who today are the victims of war crimes. Those that commit these acts will have to face up to their responsibility, including in the ICC,” the French president said.

Neither Russia nor Syria is a member of the ICC.

Moscow has repeatedly denied attacking civilians, and says it targets terrorist groups in Syria.

The besieged east of Aleppo has come under intense aerial bombardment since a cessation of hostilities brokered by the US and Moscow collapsed last month.

The area was hit again on October 11 in some of the heaviest air strikes in days, a monitoring group and activists said.

According to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 8 civilians were killed in strikes on the Bustan al-Qasr and Fardos districts.

Diplomatic efforts to revive the ceasefire have so far come to nothing.

The UN has warned that eastern Aleppo, where an estimated 275,000 people still live, could face “total destruction” in two months.

Last week Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution drafted by France calling for an end to the bombing in Aleppo.

Gary Johnson, one of the third-party candidates in the presidential election, has been ridiculed after being wrong-footed by a question on a key Syrian battleground.

Asked what he would do about the Syrian city of Aleppo, if elected, Libertarian Gary Johnson answered: “What is Aleppo?”

Gary Johnson later admitted he had “blanked” but said he would “get smarter” following the gaffe.

Aleppo has been one of the major flashpoints of Syria’s five-year civil war.

Image source Flickr

Image source Flickr

Known as “Halab” in Arabic, it is one of world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, being mentioned in Egyptian texts from the 20th Century BC.

Fighting in Syria has escalated in recent weeks, with an estimated 250,000 people living in besieged rebel-held areas.

Although Gary Johnson trails far behind Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in polls, both main party candidates are said to be unpopular among many US voters and analysts believe Johnson could play a part in deciding the result.

Gary Johnson seemed unaware of the crisis in Aleppo when asked for his solution by MSNBC panelist Mike Barnicle, saying: “And what is Aleppo?”

“You’re kidding me?” replied Mike Barnicle, before going on to describe the situation there.

“OK, got it, got it,” said Gary Johnson, before adding: “With regard to Syria, I do think it’s a mess. I think that the only way that we deal with Syria is to join hands with Russia to diplomatically bring that at an end.”

Russia and the United States have largely backed opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, with Russian aircraft providing air support to President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Gary Johnson later issued a statement saying: “Can I name every city in Syria? No. Should I have identified Aleppo? Yes. Do I understand its significance? Yes.”

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, one of the longest-serving and most prominent leaders of ISIS has been killed in Aleppo, Syria, ISIS-affiliated Amaq News Agency announces.

He was “martyred while surveying the operations to repel the military campaigns against Aleppo”, it said.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was known for his calls for lone-wolf attacks in the West.

One of ISIS’ founder members, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani is also said to have masterminded attacks in Europe and elsewhere.Abu Muhammad al-Adnani killed in Aleppo

The statement did not say how Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, who had a US bounty of $5 million on his head, was killed.

A US defense official said US-led coalition forces had carried out an air strike on August 30 in Syria targeting a “senior leader” from ISIS in al-Bab in Aleppo province.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s death comes at a time when ISIS is suffering military reverses in both Syria and Iraq.

He was last heard in an audio message in May urging Muslims to carry out attacks in the West.

Abu Muhammad al-Adnani was born Taha Sobhi Falaha in the northern Syrian town of Banash in 1977.

According to US officials, Abu Muhammad al-was one of the first foreign fighters to oppose the presence of US-led forces in Iraq after the 2003 invasion.

Damascus has agreed to halt its aerial bombardment of Aleppo for six weeks for a trial ceasefire, UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura says.

Staffan de Mistura said the Syrian pledge offered a glimmer of hope although it is unclear when it would take effect.

The opposition Syrian National Council says the government will be judged by actions rather than words.

Government forces have been engaged in heavy fighting as they try to cut a crucial rebel supply route.

More than 100 soldiers and rebels were reported to have been killed on February 17 as the army captured several villages north of the city.

Staffan de Mistura has been working since October to negotiate what are called “local freezes” in the Syrian fighting that would start with Aleppo.

During a recent visit to the country, he held a long meeting with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, during which the Syrian president apparently indicated a willingness to halt all aerial bombing and artillery shelling of Aleppo for the six-week period.

Photo Reuters

Photo Reuters

Staffan de Mistura said he would return to Syria as soon as possible with the aim of announcing a freeze in the fighting in the northern city, during which opposition forces would also be expected to suspend their mortar and rocket fire.

“Let’s be frank, I have no illusions because based on past experiences, this will be a difficult issue to be achieved,” he said.

Aleppo has been divided between rebel and government control since fighting erupted in the city in mid-2012.

Soldiers, backed by pro-government militiamen and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, have made steady advances since launching an offensive to retake the rebel-held west of the city last year.

Aleppo-based rebels and opposition activists have expressed concerns that the government will exploit any local truces to redeploy its forces to fight elsewhere, and have questioned how they will work with jihadist militants from the Islamic State (ISIS) group in the area.

Carlton Citadel Hotel and several other buildings have been destroyed by a huge explosion in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, state media and activists report.

Rebel fighters are believed to have detonated a bomb placed in a tunnel beneath the Carlton Citadel Hotel, near the city’s medieval citadel and souk.

Opposition activists said that government troops were based there and that a number had been killed.

Both sides have been trying to end a long-standing stalemate in the city.

In recent weeks, rebels have been trying to advance on areas where government forces are entrenched, while rebel-held areas of Aleppo have come under fierce aerial bombardment since mid-December.

The state news agency, Sana, reported that “terrorists” had blown up tunnels they had dug underneath archaeological sites in the Old City.

Carlton Citadel Hotel and several other buildings have been destroyed by a huge explosion in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo

Carlton Citadel Hotel and several other buildings have been destroyed by a huge explosion in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo

Preliminary reports said the hotel had suffered “huge damage”, it added, without saying if there had been any casualties.

The Carlton Citadel is situated inside a 150-year-old building that faces the entrance of the 13th-Century citadel, which along with the rest of the Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, and the opposition Shaam News Network (SNN) said it was being used by government forces.

The remote detonation of a large quantity of explosives placed in the tunnel by the Islamic Front had destroyed the hotel and caused the collapse of several nearby buildings, the Observatory said.

A number of security forces personnel and militiamen loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were believed to have been killed, it added.

Photographs and video published online purported to show the moment of the blast, with a cloud of smoke rising from the scene.

A statement from the Islamic Front said its fighters had “leveled the Carlton Hotel barracks in Old Aleppo and a number of buildings near it, killing 50 soldiers”. It did not say how it knew how many soldiers died.

The front lines have moved little in more than two years of fighting, though it seems the rebels have made a few incremental gains in recent months.

Meanwhile, hundreds more people are expected to be evacuated from their last remaining rebel stronghold in the heart of Homs.

Almost 1,000 rebel fighters and their relatives were driven in buses from the Old City to opposition-held territory north of Homs on Wednesday.

Homs Governor Talal al-Barazi told Syrian state television on Wednesday that Homs would be declared a “secure” city once the withdrawal was complete and the army had moved in.

The withdrawal is part of a deal that will also see rebels release dozens of captives and ease sieges of two predominantly Shia towns in the north.

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Syrian rebels in the city of Aleppo have banned croissants as symbols of “colonial” oppression.

Syria is a former French colony, so some there apparently associate this culinary symbol of Frenchness with France and with imperialism more generally.

The sharia committee specifically targeted croissants, al-Arabiya reports, because the pastry’s “crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims.”

A fatwa against croissants might seem ridiculous, particularly in a time and place where bread shortages can be common. But there’s a serious side to the edict. Rebel-held regions of Aleppo are increasingly dominated by extremist elements, further marginalizing more moderate rebel groups and putting some Syrians at the groups’ mercy. In some areas, hardline Islamist groups have moved off the battlefield and begun setting up administrative councils and other governing and charitable bodies.

Syrian rebels in the city of Aleppo have banned croissants as symbols of “colonial” oppression

Syrian rebels in the city of Aleppo have banned croissants as symbols of “colonial” oppression

Two groups in particular – Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both affiliated with al-Qaeda – have begun to dominate rebel-held areas of the city, bringing with them a strict interpretation of sharia law. The ISIL, an affiliated group, claimed respnsibility for breaking hundreds of insurgents, including several senior al-Qaeda detainees, out of prison in Iraq.

The extremist element in previously moderate Aleppo threatens to further divide Syria’s rebel factions, which are fractious enough already. And the West is unlikely to send much-needed aid to rebels who mix with al-Qaeda – particularly when those al-Qaeda-affiliated groups are condemning even the most tangentially Western things.

In recent weeks, sharia committees in the area have also banned make-up and tight clothes for women and threatened a year in jail for anyone who fails to fast during Ramadan.

The much-repeated legend that seems to be behind the anti-croissant fatwa – that a baker in Budapest invented the treat after the city repelled an Ottoman invasion – has been debunked by food historians several times over. Most agree the bread migrated to France by way of Austria in the early 1800s. And while France did rule Syria for a period before World War II, Austria obviously never did. Then again, Syrian extremists aren’t exactly known for their nuance.

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The minaret of Umayyad Mosque, one of Syria’s most famous, has been destroyed during clashes in the northern city of Aleppo.

The state news agency Sana accused rebels of blowing up the 11th-Century minaret of the Umayyad Mosque.

However, activists say the minaret was hit by Syrian army tank fire.

The mosque, which is a Unesco world heritage site, has been in rebel hands since earlier this year but the area around it is still contested.

Last October Unesco appealed for the protection of the site, which it described as “one of the most beautiful mosques in the Muslim world”.

Images posted on the internet showed the minaret reduced to a pile of rubble in the mosque’s tiled courtyard.

The minaret of Umayyad Mosque, one of Syria's most famous, has been destroyed during clashes in the northern city of Aleppo

The minaret of Umayyad Mosque, one of Syria’s most famous, has been destroyed during clashes in the northern city of Aleppo

Other parts of the mosque complex – which dates mostly from the 12th Century – have been badly damaged by gunfire and shell hits.

A report by Sana said fighters from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group had destroyed the once famous landmark.

It quoted an official source saying that “terrorists… placed explosive materials in the minaret and the mosque’s southern door and set them off”.

However, Aleppo-based activist Mohammed al-Khatib, quoted by AP news agency, said a tank shell had “totally destroyed” the 45 m (148 ft) minaret.

The mosque has suffered extensive damage during months of fighting, with antique furnishings and intricately sculpted colonnades affected.

Reports say some ancient artefacts have also been looted, including a box purported to contain a strand of the Prophet Muhammad’s hair.

However, rebels said they had salvaged ancient handwritten Koranic manuscripts and hidden them.

Earlier, rebels and government forces reportedly clashed near Aleppo as they fought for control of a military airbase.

Rebels took a key military position outside the Minnigh airport on Tuesday and launched another raid on Wednesday, according to opposition activists with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“The rebels, who have laid siege to the airport for months now, entered it for the first time around dawn,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the UK-based activist group, told AFP news agency.

Heavy fighting was taking place in the grounds, he added.

Analysts say losing control of the airport would be a strategic blow for the government.

The Free Syrian Army has been trying to seize a number of airbases in the area to disrupt regime supply routes.

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More than fifty people have been killed by two blasts in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, activists and officials say.

The explosions reportedly struck an area between the University of Aleppo’s halls of residence and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at 52, but Aleppo’s governor said 82 people had died.

State TV said “terrorists” had launched rockets at the campus, but activists blamed missiles fired by warplanes.

In almost two years of fighting in Syria, Aleppo has been the scene of intense conflict between government and opposition forces.

However, neither side has been able to force the other to retreat for good, says the BBC’s James Reynolds in neighboring Turkey.

Video footage of the aftermath of the explosions in Syria’s second city showed the facade of one of the university residences blown away.

Burned-out vehicles and bodies could be seen on the street outside, while tearful survivors were shown taking refuge in a nearby building.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said at least 52 people had been killed, but added that the figure might rise dramatically because dozens were in a critical condition in hospital.

The explosions reportedly struck an area between the University of Aleppo's halls of residence and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams

The explosions reportedly struck an area between the University of Aleppo’s halls of residence and the architecture faculty on the first day of exams

The governor of Aleppo, Mohammed Wahid Akkad, told the AFP news agency that so far 82 had died and more than 160 were wounded.

Mohammed Wahid Akkad blamed a “terrorist attack that targeted students on their first day of exams”.

A military source told AFP that a stray surface-to-air missile fired by rebels had hit the campus, which lies in a government-controlled area of the city. The nearest rebel-held area is more than a mile away.

However, no rebel group has said it was behind the blasts, and opposition activists said government had sent fighter jets to bomb the campus.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), an opposition activist network, posted a link to an online video which purported to show warplanes bombing the campus.

It showed students walking quickly away from the university after the first explosion. The camera then shakes to the sound of another explosion and people begin running.

“The warplanes of this criminal regime do not respect a mosque, a church or a university,” a student who gave his name as Abu Tayem told the Reuters news agency.

Rebels have previously carried out bombings against government targets in Aleppo. In October, at least 34 people were killed in a series of bombings in the city’s main square.

The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Meanwhile, Russia has rejected a request from more than 50 countries to have the UN Security Council refer the conflict in Syria to the International Criminal Court, calling the initiative “ill-timed and counterproductive”.

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Egyptair has announced it will resume flights to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on Monday, after a three-day suspension by many airlines over security on the airport roads.

It said the road in Damascus, scene of heavy fighting and bombardment by government jets, was now secure.

Earlier a car bomb killed at least 15 people in the Syrian city of Homs, state-run Sana news agency reported.

At least 24 were hurt in the blast in the government-held al-Hamra district.

Video footage posted online showed flames and smoke.

Meanwhile the army is continuing to batter rebel-held districts of Damascus with airstrikes and heavy artillery.

Activists say about 40,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Egyptair head Roshdi Zakaria said a decision had been taken to resume flights after consulting with airline staff in Syria and the Egyptian embassy in Damascus.

Egyptair has announced it will resume flights to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on Monday, after a three-day suspension by many airlines over security on the airport roads

Egyptair has announced it will resume flights to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on Monday, after a three-day suspension by many airlines over security on the airport roads

Many flights in and out of Damascus were cancelled on Thursday and Friday after heavy fighting on the main road to the airport, which is the country’s busiest.

The government said on Saturday that the airport had reopened and domestic flights were operating, but international flights remained suspended.

Also on Saturday, internet services around Damascus resumed after a two-day blackout.

Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, has been a major battleground in the 20-month uprising.

On Sunday Sana reported a “terrorist bombing carried out with a booby trapped bomb” near a mosque in al-Hamra district.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group that monitors the violence, said the death toll could increase as many of the wounded were in a critical condition.

In Damascus the army pounded the district Kfar Sousa, in a attempt to stop rebel forces from reaching the capital, activists said.

Elsewhere, the Syrian army launched air strikes on the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory said.

The Syrian government blames the uprising on foreign-backed militant groups.

The United Nations Organization says a video that appears to show Syrian rebels killing soldiers or pro-government militiamen could be evidence of a war crime.

The footage shows gunmen beating a group of prisoners cowering on the floor before opening fire at them.

It has been alleged that Islamist militants carried out the attack after seizing army checkpoints on Thursday.

Unconfirmed reports say troops have now quit all bases near the strategic northern town of Saraqeb.

The town lies near both the main Damascus-Aleppo highway and the highway linking Aleppo to the coastal city of Latakia – making it doubly strategic.

The army, meanwhile, continued its air strikes across Syria on Thursday.

In all, more than 150 people reportedly died in fighting, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group.

The SOHR said that among the victims were more than 70 government soldiers, 43 civilians and 38 rebels.

The claim has not been independently verified.

In a separate development, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Arab League Secretary General Nabil el-Araby would meet in Cairo on Sunday to discuss the Syrian crisis, the Arab League announced.

The alleged shootings took place after the rebels overran the strategic army checkpoints between on Thursday.

The video purportedly shows agitated rebels kicking and pushing the soldiers or pro-government militiamen, known locally as “shabiha”, to the ground inside one of the seized buildings. Shots are then seen fired into the cowering mass of bodies.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said it appeared that the victims “were no longer combatants and therefore, at this point, it looks very like a war crime”.

Spokesman Rupert Colville added that the video – if proved to be genuine – would almost certainly form part of a future prosecution.

Meanwhile, Amnesty said in a statement: “This shocking footage depicts a potential war crime in progress, and demonstrates an utter disregard for international humanitarian law by the armed group in question.”

No group has so far admitted carrying out the alleged killings.

However, a rebel fighter from Idlib province, Abu Abdul Rahim, told the Guardian that a Salafi-jihadist group was behind the killings, which he said had occurred in al-Nayrab, to the west of Saraqeb.

He said the Salafists of the Dawood brigade and Suqur al-Sham did not answer to any military council affiliated to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

For months, activists have reported similar summary executions by government forces virtually every day.

But there has been mounting evidence of similar tactics being used by some rebel groups too, although many have signed a code of practice banning such abuses.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier warned that radical Islamist fighters were trying to hijack the Syrian revolution.

The comments have drawn an angry response from some opposition leaders, who say that it is the failure of the outside world to support the uprising with practical help that has left the field open to the radicals.

The SOHR more than 36,000 people have been killed since protests against President Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011.

The SOHR is one of the most prominent organizations documenting and reporting incidents and casualties in the Syrian conflict. It says its reports are impartial, though its information cannot be independently verified.

Recent alleged rebel atrocities

• 22 June – Damascus accuses ‘terrorists’ of killing 25 villagers in northern Syria and mutilating their bodies

• 6 July – footage shows a rebel questioning a soldier before shooting him – location unknown

• 1 August – four apparent Assad loyalists are seen put against the wall and shot in public in Aleppo

• 14 August – rebels are shown in a video throwing dead bodies of government snipers from an Aleppo roof

• 17 September – armed opposition groups are accused by Human Rights Watch of torturing and summarily executing detainees in Aleppo, Latakia, and Idlib

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Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province.

In Damascus, a bomb left at least five people dead and many more wounded in the Jaramana area of the city.

Meanwhile, the new international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he viewed his new mission as near-impossible.

He is expected to visit Syria and meet President Bashar al-Assad.

Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province

Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province

Separately, the head of the Red Cross was travelling to Damascus on Monday in an attempt to improve aid access to civilians.

Peter Maurer said in a statement that “an adequate humanitarian response is required to keep pace” with the worsening violence.

In Aleppo, human rights groups said several women and children were among the 25 victims when a building was hit in the town of al-Bab.

Al-Bab, just to the north-east of Aleppo, appears to be largely in rebel hands, and has been heavily pounded by government forces in recent weeks.

Increasingly, as the conflict deepens, the regime has made fuller use of its air power – attack helicopters and fixed-wing jets – to support its ground forces as they try to root out the lightly-armed rebels from towns, cities and villages all over the country, our correspondent says.

In the car bombing in the Damascus suburb, one building was badly damaged and Syrian state news agency Sana reported that women and children were among the victims. Sana blamed “an armed terrorist group” for the attack.

The explosion is the second deadly bombing within a week targeting the predominantly Druze and Christian area of Jaramana.

At least 12 people were killed when a car bomb blew up at a funeral for two people said by opposition activists to have been supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

 

President Bashar al-Assad has said Syrian government needs more time to “win the battle” against rebel forces.

In an interview with pro-government al-Dunya TV, Bashar al-Assad also dismissed as “unrealistic” the idea of creating humanitarian buffer zones within Syria.

Opposition activists say the army has launched offensives across the country to regain control of rebel-held areas.

Heavy shelling was reported on Tuesday in the capital, Damascus, Aleppo, and the north-western province of Idlib.

Bashar al-Assad said the Syrian government was “fighting a battle both regionally and internationally”.

“It definitely needs time to bring it to a decisive end. But I can sum it up in one sentence: we’re heading forward,” he told al-Dunya.

“The situation on the ground is better now, but the conclusion is not there yet. That needs some time.”

President Bashar al-Assad has said Syrian government needs more time to "win the battle" against rebel forces

President Bashar al-Assad has said Syrian government needs more time to "win the battle" against rebel forces

The security forces were “doing a heroic job in every sense”, he added.

“Everyone is worried about their country – that is normal. But [the rebels] will not be able to spread fear, they never will,” he said.

“I say to Syrians: destiny is in your hands, and not in the hands of others.”

The president mocked senior government and military officials who have defected in recent months, saying their departure amounted to a “self-cleansing of the government firstly, and the country generally”.

Responding to rumors about his whereabouts since a July bombing in Damascus killed four senior officials, he revealed that he was being interviewed from the presidential palace in the capital.

Bashar al-Assad also addressed the proposal by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to set up a United Nations-sanctioned “safe zone” inside Syria to shelter refugees and help distribute humanitarian aid.

“Talk of buffer zones firstly is not on the table and secondly it is an unrealistic idea by hostile countries and the enemies of Syria,” he said.

“Do we go back because of the ignorance of some Turkish officials or do we focus on our relationship with the Turkish people, especially those people who have stood by us during the crisis and were not swayed by the media and material propaganda?”

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius admitted on Wednesday that creating a buffer zone would be impossible without imposing a no-fly zone deploying ground forces.

“We are thinking about this. It is very complicated. We cannot do it without the agreement of the Turks and other countries,” he told France Inter radio.

“But what we want is for things to move forward, to make Bashar fall as quickly as possible and at the same time find humanitarian solutions.”

The UN refugee agency warned on Tuesday that as many as 200,000 refugees could flee to Turkey to escape fighting in Syria – almost double the number Turkey has said it can take.

The UNHCR said 5,000 refugees were now arriving at the Turkish border every day, compared to about 500 earlier this month. There are already more than 74,000 in Turkey, and 128,000 in other countries.

There are also thought to be more than 1.2 million internally displaced people in Syria, and 2.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

 

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line” that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis.

Barack Obama said he had “at this point not ordered military engagement”.

But he added: “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Earlier the new UN special envoy to Syria faced criticism for refusing to say whether President Bashar al-Assad must quit.

Barack Obama, speaking to reporters at a White House briefing, said the deployment or use of biological weapons would widen the conflict in the region.

He said: “It doesn’t just include Syria. It would concern allies in the region, including Israel, and it would concern us.”

He warned President Bashar al-Assad and “other players on the ground” about the use or movement of such weapons.

He said: “A red line for us is [if] we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a "red line" that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a "red line" that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis

Syria holds the world’s fourth-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. Last month a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said the weapons would never be deployed inside Syria.

However, the US has seen unconfirmed reports recently that the Syrian authorities have been moving the country’s chemical arms stockpile.

Fighting continued in several Syrian cities on Monday, including Damascus, Deraa and Aleppo.

A Japanese journalist, Mika Yamamoto, was killed by gunfire in Aleppo, the country’s foreign ministry has confirmed.

Mika Yamamoto, 45, was a veteran war reporter, working for Japan Press.

The UN says more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict, 170,000 have fled Syria and 2.5 million need aid within the country.

Earlier on Monday, the UN’s new envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi said he was “not in a position to say yet” whether President Assad should go, but was “committed to finding a solution”.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, last week succeeded Kofi Annan who resigned after both sides largely ignored his peace plan.

On Sunday, UN observers ended their mission to verify its implementation.

Their departure came after the UN Security Council agreed to allow their mandate to expire at midnight, and instead set up a new civilian office in Damascus to pursue political contacts that might lead to peace.

Since being confirmed as the new UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi has acknowledged that he has no concrete ideas of how to end the conflict, which he believes has been a civil war for some time.

On Monday, he said he was not ready to say whether President Assad should step down despite widespread international condemnation of his government’s crackdown on dissent since protests erupted in March 2011.

“I am not in a position to say yet, because I was appointed a couple of days ago. I am going to New York for the first time to see the people who I am going to work for, and I am going to Cairo see the Arab League,” he explained.

After announcing his resignation, Lakhdar Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, said: “It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office.”

The main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), said Lakhdar Brahimi’s stance showed “disregard for the blood of the Syrian people and their right of self-determination” and demanded he apologize.

Lakhdar Brahimi stressed that he was “committed to finding a solution full stop”.

“I am a mediator. I haven’t joined any Syrian party. I am a mediator and a mediator has to speak to anybody and everybody without influence or interest,” he added.

“Then I’ll make up my mind about what to say and what to do.”

 

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, officials have confirmed.

Lakhdar Brahimi, 78, will succeed Kofi Annan, who resigned earlier this month after his six-point peace plan failed to achieve a meaningful ceasefire.

China was the first nation to give its reaction, promising to “co-operate positively” with Lakhdar Brahimi.

However, fighting has continued unabated in the northern city of Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.

Explosions were heard in a number parts of the Syrian capital overnight.

In Aleppo, government troops repulsed attacks by rebel forces near the airport on Friday, Syria’s state-run media said.

Rebel commanders also said they were fighting near the airport, telling the New York Times that their fighters had advanced to within metres of the airport fence.

The claims have not been verified independently.

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi, whose appointment came a day after the UN called an end to its military observer mission, has held a long series of high-profile diplomatic posts.

As a senior Arab League official between 1984-91, Lakhdar Brahimi brokered an end to the Lebanese civil war, going on to serve as Algerian foreign minister between 1991-3.

Later, he was twice appointed as the UN’s top envoy for Afghanistan, from 1996-8 and from 2001-4. He has held similar roles for Haiti and South Africa.

A spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN welcomed Lakhdar Brahimi’s willingness to help stop “the violence and suffering in Syria”.

Announcing his resignation earlier this month, Kofi Annan had said he was unable to fulfill his role because of the growing militarization of the conflict, as well as the deadlock over the issue in the UN Security Council.

Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.

Co-operation was essential in order to find a peaceful resolution, said Lakhdar Brahimi.

“There is no doubt that I will be able to do strictly nothing if I do not have the support and if I do not have the co-operation of the Syrians,” he said.

But Lakhdar Brahimi also insisted diplomatic efforts should not be abandoned: “These missions have to be undertaken. We have got to try. We have got to see that the Syrian people are not abandoned.

“I might very well fail but we sometimes are lucky and we can get a breakthrough.”

At least 60 bodies were found earlier this week in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, activists said, following what the opposition described as a “massacre” by government forces.

A poor-quality video posted online showed what appeared to be the charred remains of dozens of people, many with their hands tied behind their backs.

Activists estimate about 20,000 people have died since anti-government protests erupted against the Assad regime in March last year. Tens of thousands of people have also fled the country.

 

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, according to diplomats.

If confirmed, Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who resigned last week saying he could no longer carry out the role.

A six-point peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan failed to come into effect, and violence has escalated.

Rebels lost control of a key area of Aleppo after weeks of fighting.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) confirmed it had retreated from the strategic Salah al-Din district in the face of a large-scale government offensive launched the previous day.

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to be appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi’s appointment could be announced as early as next week, barring last-minute objections from governments, diplomatic sources told journalists.

Lakhdar Brahimi, 78, has held a long series of high-profile diplomatic posts.

As a senior Arab League official between 1984-91, he brokered an end to the Lebanese civil war, going on to serve as Algerian foreign minister between 1991-3.

Later, he was twice appointed as the UN’s top envoy for Afghanistan, in 1996-8 and in 2001-4. He has held similar roles for Haiti and South Africa.

Stepping down last week, Kofi Annan said he was unable to fulfill his role because of the growing militarization of the conflict in Syria, as well as the continuing deadlock over the issue in the UN Security Council.

Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.

After taking up his post in February, Kofi Annan formulated a peace plan that called for an end to the use of heavy weaponry, the free passage of aid, freedom of media and demonstration and for a Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people.

It was supposed to come into effect in mid-April, but government forces continued to shell opposition strongholds and the opposition forces never fully committed to it.

The fighting recently intensified in the two main cities, with experts describing it as a new phase in the conflict.

Rebel fighters had been heavily embedded in Aleppo’s Salah al-Din district since seizing the densely packed area of narrow streets three weeks ago.

The rebels still control several other districts, including some in the east of Aleppo that activists said came under very heavy bombardment on Thursday.

State television said dozens of rebels had been killed or wounded in fighting in the Hananu quarter.

Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and Salah al-Din is considered a vital supply route for government troops coming from the south.

 

Syrian rebel commanders say they have lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district in the northern city of Aleppo after a government offensive.

The city has come under fresh bombardment, as the army attempts to recapture areas seized by rebels.

Iran called for dialogue between the government and opposition, at the start of a summit on the crisis in Tehran.

Meanwhile, Lebanese authorities have detained a former minister with close ties to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

Michel Samaha, who is known for his pro-Syrian views, was taken for questioning by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces over what were described as security reasons.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has confirmed it has retreated from Salah al-Din, a densely packed area of narrow streets on the south-west side of Aleppo, where rebel fighters had been heavily dug in.

Syrian rebel commanders say they have lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district in the northern city of Aleppo after a government offensive

Syrian rebel commanders say they have lost control of the strategic Salah al-Din district in the northern city of Aleppo after a government offensive

State media had reported the army was in full control of the district, saying it had inflicted heavy losses on hundreds of “terrorist mercenaries”.

“We have staged a tactical withdrawal from Salah al-Din,” rebel commander Hossam Abu Mohammed of the Dara al-Shahbaa Brigade in Aleppo told the AFP news agency by phone.

“The district is completely empty of rebel fighters. Regime forces are now advancing into Salah al-Din.”

The rebels still control several other districts, including some in the east of the city which activists say are coming under very heavy bombardment.

State television reported clashes there too, in the Hananu quarter. It said dozens of rebels had been killed or wounded, while others had thrown down their weapons and fled.

On Wednesday, Syria’s state military launched a large operation to retake Aleppo from rebel fighters, who overran some areas three weeks ago.

Aleppo is Syria’s largest city, and Salah al-Din is considered a vital supply route for government troops coming from the south.

The Syrian Observatory said at least 26 people were killed in Aleppo on Wednesday – it said they were among 130 people killed across the country.

Meanwhile, three days after Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected to the opposition, the health minister Wael al-Halqi has been named as his replacement.

Wael al-Halqi is a Baath Party loyalist from Deraa in the south of the country, where the uprising began in March last year, and where violence is still raging.

Riad Hijab, whose defection was considered the most significant since the revolt began, was said to have crossed into Jordan on Wednesday.

Opening a 29-nation conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said dialogue between both sides was the only solution to crisis.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran firmly believes that the Syrian crisis can only be resolved through serious and inclusive talks between the government and opposition groups that enjoy popular support in Syria,” Ali Akbar Salehi said in a speech broadcast on TV.

Western governments, which are not taking part, have expressed skepticism that Tehran can mediate, given its recent strong commitments to the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is a staunch ally of the Assad regime, said the summit would be a gathering of countries with “a correct and realistic position” on the Syrian conflict.

On Tuesday, Iranian security chief Saeed Jalili expressed strong support for President Bashar al-Assad during a visit to Damascus, describing Syria as a crucial part of a regional “axis of resistance”.

Kuwait’s foreign ministry told al-Seyassah newspaper it would not be sending a representative. Lebanon also said it would not attend while Moscow sent its ambassador and not its foreign minister.

On Thursday, Lebanese sources confirmed the detention of Assad ally Michel Samaha, who is being questioned over alleged plans to cause instability in Lebanon.

Michel Samaha was information minister for more than 10 years, serving under the assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Allies of Rafiq Hariri accused Syria of being involved in the attack.

 

Syrian government forces have taken full control of strategic district Salah al-Din in the biggest city, Aleppo, after fierce fighting, state media say.

However, rebel commanders denied they had retreated from the Salah al-Din district, amid reports of a push by army tanks and armored vehicles.

Images have emerged of bodies in shattered buildings, after the bombardment of a town near Aleppo.

Opposition activists reported at least 20 deaths across Syria on Wednesday.

In another development, Jordanian officials confirmed that former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab had only just crossed into Jordan – two days after his defection was announced.

Syrian government forces have taken full control of strategic district Salah al-Din in the biggest city, Aleppo, after fierce fighting

Syrian government forces have taken full control of strategic district Salah al-Din in the biggest city, Aleppo, after fierce fighting

Activists said he and his family had been hiding in the south of the country and that reports on Monday that he had already left Syria were aimed at throwing government forces off the trail.

State media said government forces had taken full control of Salah al-Din, killing most of the rebels there.

They also reported heavy rebel losses near the historic citadel and in another district.

But a commander from the rebel Free Syrian Army denied that it had withdrawn from Salah al-Din, and said it had launched a counter-attack following the arrival of some 700 reinforcements.

“For an hour and a half the Free Syrian Army has staged a counter-attack and reclaimed three streets out of five seized by regime forces,” Wassel Ayub told AFP news agency by phone.

Another FSA commander, Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told AFP news agency via Skype: “It is not true the regime army has seized control of the district.

“It is true that there is a barbaric and savage attack.”

A team of Reuters news agency journalists who tried to enter Salah al-Din on Wednesday found that a checkpoint manned by rebel fighters this week had disappeared.

They were told by a lone rebel fighter that the rebels had abandoned their positions. Explosions could be heard as incoming gunfire hit buildings in the area, the Reuters team said.

Journalist Martin Chulov, of the UK’s Guardian newspaper, tweeted from Aleppo that the battle for Salah al-Din would likely decide the fate of the city.

Videos circulated on Syrian social media on Wednesday show people searching the debris of buildings in a town identified as Tal Rifaat, near Aleppo. One clip shows a plane passing overhead followed by an explosion on the ground.

Photos released by Reuters show people recovering body parts from the wreckage. At least one child appears to be among the dead.

Earlier, Amnesty International said satellite images had revealed at least 600 probable artillery impact craters in Anadan, also near Aleppo.

It said any attacks against civilians would be documented so that those responsible could be held accountable.

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More than 20,000 Syrian troops are deployed around Aleppo, military sources say, as fighting rages for control of the country’s second city.

Fighter jets, helicopters and artillery have pounded rebel positions ahead of a feared full-scale assault within days.

Tanks are trying to push into two key rebel-held areas, the opposition says.

In Damascus, another vital battleground in the war, army sources said rebels had been pushed from a last stronghold. The rebels said they had withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Iran is seeking the release of 48 Iranians kidnapped on Saturday.

Iranian diplomats and Syrian state television blamed the abduction, which took place near the shrine of Sayyida Zainab in a suburb of Damascus, on “armed groups”.

Iran has now asked Turkey and Qatar, both of whom have good relations with the Syrian opposition, to help win the release of the Iranians who it says are pilgrims.

More than 20,000 Syrian troops are deployed around Aleppo as fighting rages for control of the country's second city

More than 20,000 Syrian troops are deployed around Aleppo as fighting rages for control of the country's second city

Rebels claimed on Sunday that some of those taken were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, according to al-Arabiya television.

Separately, Syria’s first astronaut is reported to have joined the opposition and fled to Turkey, the latest in a series of high-profile defections.

Muhammed Faris met Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders in Aleppo and gave them his support before crossing the border, the Turkish news agency Anatolia reported.

Meanwhile, a British photojournalist who was kidnapped and wounded by Islamist militants in northern Syria has said up to 15 of his captors were from the UK.

John Cantlie and Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans were held at a camp for a week in July.

The Syrian military has been steadily building up its forces around Aleppo, massing large numbers of tanks and other armoured vehicles as well as troops, in preparation for a much more intense attack.

There is already fierce fighting in and around the city as troops try to push rebel forces out from southern and eastern districts.

The army is using tanks to try to break its way into the districts of Salah al-Din and Saif al-Dawla, which lie on the main road into the city, opposition sources say.

Areas where rebels are entrenched have been bombarded by government forces and clashes have been reported in several areas, including in the heart of the old city.

A spokesman for the rebels said they were continuing to push into the centre, moving towards the historic castle in the old city. Opposition sources said there was now fighting around the castle itself – but this has not been confirmed by independent sources.

The rebels, who have also increased their numbers, are well dug in and continue to try to extend the territory under their control, our correspondent says.

The biggest advantage for the government is the use of helicopters and fighter jets; but more troops will also have to fight their way into the city if they are to stand any chance of retaking it, and that will make it a much more even battle, he adds.

Abdel Jabar Oqaida, a commander of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo, told the AFP news agency that the restive Salah al-Din district had “come under the heaviest bombardment since the battle began” on 20 July.

A senior government security official told the agency: “The battle for Aleppo has not yet begun, and what is happening now is just the appetizer… the main course will come later.”

The fight for the key strategic city has been intensifying over the last few days, with Syrian state television reporting that troops had inflicted huge losses on what it called “terrorist mercenaries” in Salah al-Din and in other nearby areas.

In the capital, government forces claimed to have pushed out rebel fighters from their final stronghold in the city, the southern neighborhood of Tadamon. Free Syrian Army forces withdrew, an opposition activist told AFP from Beirut.

State media has reported that the whole of Damascus is now in government hands, almost three weeks after opposition forces launched a series of attacks there. Such reports are impossible to verify and the situation on the ground is changing fast.

Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Turkey on 11 August for talks on the conflict in Syria, the US State Department said.

Hillary Clinton is adding the stop in Turkey to her lengthy tour of Africa.

 

The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages.

It passed a non-binding resolution, which also condemns the Syrian government’s use of heavy weapons, by 133 votes to 12 with 31 abstentions.

The move came after the resignation of UN envoy Kofi Annan and failure of his six-point peace plan.

Government forces backed by tanks have launched a new assault in Damascus.

The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages

The UN General Assembly has voted by a big majority to condemn its own Security Council for failing to end the unrest in Syria as fighting rages

Shelling also continued on Friday in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.

Activists say more than 20,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in 17 months of unrest.

The resolution passed at the UN expresses “grave concern” at the escalation of violence in Syria and deplores “the failure of the Security Council to agree on measures to ensure the compliance of Syrian authorities with its decisions”.

“The first step in the cessation of violence has to be made by the Syrian authorities,” the resolution said.

Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, the envoy for Saudi Arabia which is the driving force behind the resolution, had urged the Assembly to maintain its moral and humanitarian values by approving the resolution.

Syria’s envoy, Bashar Jaafari, reacted to the passing of the resolution by saying his government still supported Kofi Annan’s six-point plan.

Accusing Saudi Arabia and Qatar of having undermined the plan before coming out in support of it, he said: “You cannot be a fireman and an arsonist at the same time.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict in Syria had become a “proxy war” and called on powers to overcome their rivalries in an effort to end the violence.

“The acts of brutality that are being reported may constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes,” he said.

Russia and China have blocked attempts in the UN Security Council to impose sanctions against Damascus.

Fighting in Syria’s embattled city of Aleppo has increased significantly in the past few days, the UN says.

Sausan Ghosheh of the UN mission in Syria says opposition forces were now in possession of heavy weapons, including captured tanks.

She urged both sides to show restraint and to distinguish between civilians and fighters in the conflict.

Meanwhile, reports suggest army troops have killed 35 people near Damascus, most of them unarmed civilians.

They died after government forces shelled and overran the neighborhood of Jdeidet Artouz, southwest of the capital, on Wednesday, activists and residents told Reuters.

On Wednesday, video footage emerged apparently showing the public shooting of four Bashar al-Assad loyalists by rebels in Aleppo, sparking criticism from human rights groups.

Fighting in Syria's embattled city of Aleppo has increased significantly in the past few days

Fighting in Syria's embattled city of Aleppo has increased significantly in the past few days

More than 200,000 people have fled Aleppo in recent weeks, the UN says, as government forces battle to oust Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels from the country’s biggest city.

The rebels appear to control large parts of the city despite government assertions that they have suffered heavy losses.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 135 deaths on Wednesday while the Local Coordination Committees gave a figure of 170.

“In the last 72 hours we saw a significant increase in the level of violence. Our observers are reporting heavy exchanges of fire,” Susan Ghosheh said on Wednesday.

“They also reported the use of helicopters, tanks, heavy machine guns and artillery. Yesterday, for the first time we saw firing from fighter aircraft.”

Susan Ghosheh confirmed reports that the FSA was “in possession of heavy weapons including tanks” in the city.

There are reports that the FSA may have been given shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, which could reduce the threat posed by government helicopter gunships.

The opposition Syrian National Council has criticized rebel gunmen for killing several prisoners who were said to belong to a pro-government militia in the city of Aleppo, after footage emerged of the incident.

Human Rights Watch has said the incident could potentially be a war crime.

Video posted online shows the men, some of them bruised and bloodied, being put up against a wall half-naked and shot with Kalashnikov rifles.

One of the men killed has been identified as Ali Zeineddin al-Berri, known as Zeno, accused of leading a pro-regime shabiha militia group which killed 15 FSA fighters during a truce in Aleppo on Tuesday.

Abdullah Omar, a cousin of a rebel fighter who had been killed by the militia, said it was naive to imagine that the rebels would have the same standards as a regular army.

“We have to remember of course that the FSA is predominantly made up of defectors from Syria’s army and it is absurd to imagine that merely by defecting they will magically transform themselves into an organization that adheres by international standards of warfare.”

Meanwhile, Reuters news agency reports that President Barack Obama approved an order earlier this year authorizing US support for Syria’s opposition.

The intelligence “finding”, as the order is called, allows the CIA and other agencies to aid the rebels, US sources told the news agency.

The White House – which declined to comment on the report – has openly expressed support for the opposition, but has stopped short of providing arms.

Activists estimate some 20,000 people have died since March last year.

Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is arriving in the UK on Thursday and is expected to discuss the Syrian crisis with Prime Minister David Cameron.

 

United Nations announces that some 200,000 people have fled intense fighting in Syria’s second city Aleppo in the past two days.

UN humanitarian chief Baroness Valerie Amos said others were trapped in the city and needed urgent help.

Government forces launched a ground assault on Saturday after a week of sporadic shelling and sorties by fighter jets.

Residents are facing food shortages and power cuts.

The rebels are outgunned by the army, but they are fighting an effective guerrilla war in the streets.

Fighting has focused on the Salah al-Din neighborhood in Aleppo’s south-west, where the rebels had embedded themselves.

Syrian state television showed footage from the city and interviewed soldiers who said they had taken complete control of Salah al-Din late on Sunday.

On Monday, officials in Damascus again said they had “purged” the area.

But activists have denied that the quarter has been overrun by the army, saying rebels are still in control.

They said fighting was continuing on Monday.

They also reported heavy shelling and clashes at the Sakhur quarter on the north-east side of the city centre, where another attack by government forces appeared to be under way.

United Nations announces that some 200,000 people have fled intense fighting in Syria's second city Aleppo in the past two days

United Nations announces that some 200,000 people have fled intense fighting in Syria's second city Aleppo in the past two days

Baroness Amos, speaking in New York, said that the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent estimated 200,000 people had fled the fighting in the past two days.

“It is not known how many people remain trapped in places where fighting continues today,” she said.

“I call on all parties to the fighting to ensure that they do not target civilians and that they allow humanitarian organizations safe access.”

She said many people had fled their homes to take shelter in schools and other public buildings.

Analysts say many others will have gone to nearby villages, and others will have fled across the border with Turkey.

The UN Security Council is chronically divided over Syria, with Russia blocking attempts by Western nations to ramp up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.

France is due to take over the presidency of the Security Council this week, and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has pledged to continue pushing the issue.

He called Bashar al-Assad an “executioner” and said he would ask for a ministerial level meeting of Security Council members before the end of the week.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who is on a five day Middle East tour, has also heavily criticized the government’s assault on Aleppo.

He said the attack would be “a nail in the coffin” of President Bashar al-Assad.

Leon Panetta will visit Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and Jordan in a bid to reinforce the view that Bashar al-Assad must step down.

Where Syrians are fleeing:

• Turkey: 43,387

• Jordan: 36,824

• Lebanon: 31,596

• Iraq: 8,445

• Internally displaced: One million

Source: UNHCR

In other developments:

• A Turkish official tells Reuters news agency that 12 police officers, including the chief of Latakia city’s force, have fled over the border.

• The Turkish army has sent reinforcements including missile batteries to the Syrian border, state-run Anatolian news agency reports.

 

Two more senior Syrian diplomats have defected amid mounting pressure on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the US has confirmed.

Syria’s representatives in the United Arab Emirates and Cyprus – who are husband and wife – are reported to have fled to Qatar.

It comes amid intensifying clashes in the key city of Aleppo, where troops are trying to halt a rebel advance.

UN members have traded more accusations of blame amid the diplomatic impasse.

Earlier, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged the world to “act now to stop the slaughter”, but Security Council members remain deadlocked over what action it should take.

The Syrian government has rushed troops and tanks to Aleppo, Syria’s second city and commercial centre, parts of which were seized by rebels.

The heightening of the crisis is causing regional concern, say correspondents, amid a growing exodus of refugees and fears the fighting could draw in Syria’s neighbours.

Syrian diplomats’ defection comes amid intensifying clashes in the key city of Aleppo

Syrian diplomats’ defection comes amid intensifying clashes in the key city of Aleppo

“We can confirm the defections of Syrian ambassadors to both the UAE and Cyprus,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One.

Jay Carney said the move showed that “senior officials around the Assad inner circle are fleeing the government because of the heinous actions taken by Assad against his own people, and the recognition that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered”.

The diplomats in question are Lamia al-Hariri, Syria’s charge d’affaires in Cyprus, and her husband Abdelatif al-Dabbagh, ambassador to the UAE.

A military attaché at the Syrian embassy in Oman – Mohammed Tahseen al-Faqir – is also reported to have defected.

Earlier this month, Nawaf Fares, Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, left for Qatar.

A senior state department official told AFP news agency: “These defections serve as a reminder that the bottom is starting to fall out of the regime. It is crumbling and losing its grip on power.”

Aleppo is now the focus of a battle which neither regime nor opposition forces can afford to lose.

He says restive neighbourhoods are being pounded by artillery, mortars and helicopter gunfire, and there are multiple reports of reinforcements heading to the city.

One activist based in the city, Mohammed Saeed, told Associated Press news agency they were expecting a big assault to try to reassert government control.

Adrien Jaulmes, of French newspaper Le Figaro, said that many people had fled Aleppo and others remained off the streets and in their homes.

“All afternoon, helicopters and Syrian jet fighters have been circling above the city, with the Free Syrian Army fighters firing at them with all the weapons they have,” he said, adding that the situation remained fluid and difficult to assess.

The fighting has caused renewed regional concern, with Turkey tightening its border controls with Syria, though it says it will allow refugees to get through.

Thousands of refugees have already sought shelter in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Meanwhile, AP reported Israelis were rushing to get government-issue gas masks on Wednesday, following a Syrian threat on Monday that it would employ chemical weapons against external attackers.

On Wednesday, the UN’s Ban Ki-moon urged world leaders to halt the slaughter in Syria.

But further bitter accusations of blame followed within the UN Security Council, which has seen three resolutions blocked by Russia and China.

“The Syrian people will pay the price for this failure [to act],” Germany’s UN ambassador Peter Wittig told a Security Council debate on the Middle East on Wednesday.

But Russia envoy Vitaly Churkin retorted that pledges by some Western powers to take steps to support the Syrian opposition outside the council “contributes and leads to an escalation of confrontation”.

 

 

New fighting is reported in Syria’s two biggest cities – Damascus and Aleppo – as government forces seek to regain control of rebel-held areas.

The army’s elite fourth division, backed by helicopters, has reportedly launched an assault on the capital’s north-eastern suburb of Barzeh.

Troops were also said to have deployed in the western suburb of Mezzeh.

Fighting also continued for a third day in Aleppo, where activists said a building had collapsed under tankfire.

The violence follows a week in which rebels made major advances, taking control of several parts of Damascus, seizing border crossings and claiming an attack that killed four top security officials, including the defence minister and President Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law.

Meanwhile, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported that at least 19,106 people had been killed since March 2011.

They included 13,296 civilians, including those who had taken up arms, as well as 4,861 security personnel and 949 army defectors, it said.

The UN said in May that at least 10,000 people had been killed, while in June the Syrian government reported that 6,947 Syrians had died, including at least 3,211 civilians and 2,566 security forces personnel.

New fighting is reported in Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, as government forces seek to regain control of rebel-held areas

New fighting is reported in Syria's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, as government forces seek to regain control of rebel-held areas

The government forces seem determined to drive the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) completely out of Damascus and are setting about it quite systematically.

Having regained one district close to the centre of the capital and another on its north-eastern edge, troops are now focusing on Mezzeh and Barzeh.

The attack on Barzeh by the army’s fourth division, which is commanded by the president’s brother Maher, had sent residents fleeing from the area, the Syrian Observatory reported.

Helicopter gunships were firing rockets and snipers were deployed on rooftops, the group’s director, Rami Abdul Rahman, told the AFP news agency.

State television later denied reports that helicopter gunships were being used in the assault. But pictures it broadcast of captured districts showed huge destruction, which activists say was cause by massive bombardments.

State TV also showed pictures of many bodies of what it called “terrorists” killed in the counter-attacks, as well as quantities of weapons and ammunition it said were seized.

Clearly, our correspondent says, in a straight fight, the lightly armed rebels are no match for the massive firepower and greater manpower of the state’s forces.

Reports from activists in Aleppo said there had been more clashes during the night and on Sunday morning between the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and security forces.

They said a building in the Seif al-Dawla district collapsed under tank fire.

Residents also told the Reuters news agency that rebels were fighting government forces near the headquarters of an intelligence agency in the city centre.

An Aleppo-based activist, Mohammed Saeed, said rebels were still in control of the central Salah al-Din district and nearby Sakhour.

“Aleppo is witnessing serious street battles,” he told the Associated Press.

Mohammed Saeed also said there had been clashes on the road leading to the city’s international airport, as rebels tried to prevent military reinforcements being flown in.

State TV played down the scale of the violence, saying troops were merely hunting down “terrorists”.

The commander of FSA forces in Aleppo province has vowed to “liberate” the whole city.

In a video posted online, Col. Abdul Jabbar Mohammed Aqidi also called on government troops to defect to the opposition, and said the FSA would protect members of the president’s minority Alawite sect, saying: “Our war is not with you but with the Assad family.”

There were also reports of violence in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour on Sunday. Witnesses told Reuters that it was being attacked with artillery and rockets from helicopter gunships.

Rebels were now in control of the Bab al-Salam border crossing with Turkey. Turkey is not allowing non-Syrian nationals through so the border remains effectively closed.

President Bashar al-Assad was meanwhile shown on state TV receiving his new armed forces chief-of-staff, Gen Ali Abdullah Ayub, giving him his instructions, and wishing him success in his mission.

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At least 25 people have been killed in two bomb attacks targeting security forces compounds in Syria’s second city of Aleppo, state media report.

According to state television, the death toll included both civilians and members of the security forces and blamed “armed terrorist gangs” for the blasts.

There are conflicting reports about whether the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) was behind the attacks.

A spokesman appeared to confirm that it was, but another blamed the government.

Col Malik al-Kurdi, the FSA’s deputy leader, said it had been monitoring the activity of security forces personnel and members of the pro-government Shabiha militia inside a Military Intelligence compound and a riot police base in Aleppo on Friday morning.

“When they were gathering in a square to go to the mosques and repress demonstrations, two groups from the FSA targeted the two buildings with small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire,” he said.

“After violent clashes, there was an explosion inside the Military Intelligence building. At first we didn’t know what it was, but we think it was the regime trying to stop the operation of the FSA,” he added.

Another FSA spokesman, Col Mahir Nouaimi, told AFP: “This criminal regime is killing our children in Homs and carrying out bomb attacks in Aleppo to steer attention away from what it is doing in Homs.”

At least 25 people have been killed in two bomb attacks targeting security forces compounds in Syria's second city of Aleppo

At least 25 people have been killed in two bomb attacks targeting security forces compounds in Syria's second city of Aleppo

Opposition activists also said the government was responsible, accusing it of trying to discredit the uprising. Suspicious activity by security personnel had been noticed shortly before the blasts, they added.

Syrian state TV broadcast images showing at least five corpses and mangled body parts.

A weeping TV reporter said the bomb targeting an intelligence building went off near a park, where people had gathered for breakfast and children had been playing.

Some children were killed in the blast, he said, holding up an inline-skate.

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