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Top Hezbollah commander in Syria’s war Mustafa Amine Badreddine has been killed in Damascus.

Mustafa Amine Badreddine, 55, died in a large explosion near Damascus airport, the Lebanon-based militant group said in a statement on its al-Manar website.

He is charged with leading the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Beirut in 2005.

Hezbollah supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and has sent thousands of fighters into Syria.Mustafa Amine Badreddine killedd

The US treasury, which imposed sanctions on Mustafa Amine Badreddine last July, said at the time he was “responsible for Hezbollah’s military operations in Syria since 2011, including the movement of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon to Syria, in support of the Syrian regime”.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV had earlier said that Mustafa Amine Badreddine died in an Israeli airstrike. Israel has not commented on the claim.

Announcing Mustafa Amine Badreddine’s death, Hezbollah said in an initial statement: “He took part in most of the operations of the Islamic Resistance since 1982,” referring to the group’s military wing.

The second statement, on al-Manar’s website, said: “The investigation will work on determining the nature of the explosion and its causes and whether it was a result of an air, missile or artillery attack.

“We will announce further results of the investigations soon.”

Al-Manar said Mustafa Amine Badreddine would be buried in Beirut on May 13.

Born in 1961, Mustafa Amine Badreddine is believed to have been a senior figure in Hezbollah’s military wing.

He was a cousin and brother-in-law of Imad Mughniyeh, who was the military wing’s chief until his assassination by car bomb in Damascus in 2008.

According to one report, a Hezbollah member interrogated by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), described Mustafa Amine Badreddine as “more dangerous” than Imad Mughniyeh, who was “his teacher in terrorism”.

Mustafa Amine Badreddine and Imad Mughniyeh are alleged to have worked together on the October 1983 bombing of the US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 personnel.

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.

At least 12 people have been killed and dozens more wounded in a mortar attack on a technical institute in central Damascus, Syrian state media say.

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of the city, police told the Sana news agency.

Two of the shells hit the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute.

The attack comes a day after President Bashar al-Assad registered to stand for re-election defying calls to step down as a way of ending Syria’s civil war.

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of Damascus

Four mortar shells struck the mainly Shia Shaghour neighborhood of Damascus

Bashar al-Assad’s forces have pushed back rebels from many of their strongholds around the capital, but residents say they have responded by increasing the number of rocket and mortar attacks in the centre of the city.

“Twelve citizens were killed and 50 others wounded by terrorists who targeted the Shaghour neighborhood,” Sana reported.

The word “terrorists” is used by the Syrian authorities to describe all those seeking to depose President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also reported the mortar attack, saying that the number of fatalities is expected to rise.

It says that the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute is an Islamic law studies centre, with students as young as 14.

More than 150,000 people are believed to have been killed in the three-year civil war.

Millions of people have fled their homes as fighting shows no sign of easing. The UN says that almost 3.5 million civilians are being denied vital aid, including medicine and medical care.

A group of prominent lawyers and academics has urged the UN in an open letter to deliver aid into Syria with or without the government’s consent.

The letter, signed by 35 legal experts, says permission for aid is being arbitrarily withheld.

A UN resolution adopted in February called for all sides in the conflict to allow unrestricted humanitarian access.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 16 Syrian soldiers have been killed in a suicide bombing and fighting that followed in Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

The blast triggered clashes at a checkpoint near the mainly-Christian area of Jaramana, activists say.

State media blamed “terrorists” for the explosion but did not give details.

Earlier, the US urged the Syrian government to allow aid to reach starving civilians in Damascus.

Washington said the army’s months-long siege left many people in rebel-held areas in desperate need of food, water and medicine.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria, said the suicide car bombing by the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front triggered heavy fighting at a key checkpoint between Jaramana and the rebel-held town of Mleha.

At least 16 Syrian soldiers have been killed in a suicide bombing and fighting that followed in Damascus suburb of Jaramana

At least 16 Syrian soldiers have been killed in a suicide bombing and fighting that followed in Damascus suburb of Jaramana

It said rebels fired rockets into Jaramana during the fighting and Syrian fighter jets retaliated by striking nearby opposition-held areas.

The report could not be confirmed.

Rebels control much of the countryside around Damascus but Jaramana – a Christian and Druze area mostly loyal to President Bashar al-Assad – is still held by the government.

In August a car bomb in the suburb killed 18 people.

President Bashar al-Assad has drawn support from Syria’s ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

The rebel movement is dominated by Sunni Muslims, who are a majority in Syria.

In a statement on Friday, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said: “We call on the Syrian regime to immediately approve relief convoys.”

And she warned that “those who are responsible for atrocities in the Damascus suburbs and across Syria must be identified and held accountable”.

At least three of Damascus’s suburbs – Yarmouk, Eastern Ghouta and Moudamiyah – have been besieged by government forces for several months.

UN inspectors are investigating at least three alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria that happened after August 21.

Little is known about the latest three alleged attacks, which the Syrian government asked the UN to investigate.

The August 21 attack left hundreds dead; the resulting outcry led Syria to offer up its chemical weapons arsenal.

Inspectors are due in Syria next week – the UN will vote on the visit later.

UN inspectors are investigating at least three alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria that happened after August 21

UN inspectors are investigating at least three alleged chemical weapons attacks in Syria that happened after August 21

In Syria itself the violence goes on. Activists said a car bomb killed at least 20 people near a mosque in Rankus, a town north of Damascus, just after Friday prayers.

In a statement, the UN said its current inspection team in Syria is investigating seven allegations of chemical weapons use this year.

The team, led by Ake Sellstrom, arrived in Syria for its second visit on September 25 and hopes to finish its work by Monday 30 September, the statement said.

It is working on a “comprehensive report” into the allegations that it hopes to have finished by late October.

The UN listed the alleged attacks, which all took place this year, as Khan al-Assal on March 19; Sheikh Maqsoud on April 13; Saraqeb on April 29; Ghouta on August 21; Bahhariya on August 22; Jobar on August 24 and Ashrafieh Sahnaya on August 25.

Syria has pushed for the investigation of the three post-21 August incidents.

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UN chemical weapons inspectors are expected to return to Syria on Wednesday, according to Russian government.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said they would investigate alleged chemical weapons attacks at Khan al-Assal, Sheikh Maqsoud and Saraqeb, according to the Interfax news agency.

UN chemical weapons inspectors are expected to return to Syria

UN chemical weapons inspectors are expected to return to Syria

They had been preparing to do so when chemical weapons were fired at suburbs of Damascus on August 21.

Last week, the UN inspectors confirmed the nerve agent sarin was used in that attack.

They were not asked to ascertain who fired the sarin-filled artillery rockets that hit eastern and western parts of the Ghouta agricultural belt, killing hundreds of people, but Western powers have claimed it could only have been carried out by Syrian government forces.

The Syrian and Russian governments have challenged them to present firm evidence, and instead claimed that rebels were responsible.

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The UN is to complain to the Syrian government and rebels after a convoy of chemical weapons inspectors came under sniper fire.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he would ask the inspection team in Damascus to register “a strong complaint” so it never happened again.

The UN is to complain to the Syrian government and rebels after a convoy of chemical weapons inspectors came under sniper fire

The UN is to complain to the Syrian government and rebels after a convoy of chemical weapons inspectors came under sniper fire

The team is looking at five sites near Damascus where hundreds are reported to have been killed last week.

Russia has warned strongly against Western military action against Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any intervention in Syria without a UN mandate would be a “grave violation of international law”.

The West, he told a news conference in Moscow, had not been able to come up with any proof of chemical weapons use while “saying at the same time that the red line has been crossed and there can be no delay”.

He was responding to suggestions from some Western countries that military action against Syria could be taken without a UN mandate over the suspected use of chemical weapons by government forces.

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Medecins Sans Frontieres reports hospitals it supports in Syria treated about 3,600 patients with “neurotoxic symptoms”, of whom 355 have died.

MSF said the patients had arrived in three hospitals in the Damascus governorate on August 21 – when opposition activists say chemical attacks were launched against rebels.

But MSF says it cannot “scientifically confirm” the use of chemical weapons.

Both sides in the conflict accuse each other of using them.

MSF says staff at the hospitals described a large number of patients arriving in the space of less than three hours with symptoms including convulsions, extreme salivation, contracted pupils and sight and respiratory problems.

The charity said many were treated with atropine, a drug administered to those with “neurotoxic symptoms”.

Medecins Sans Frontieres reports hospitals it supports in Syria treated about 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms

Medecins Sans Frontieres reports hospitals it supports in Syria treated about 3,600 patients with neurotoxic symptoms

“MSF can neither scientifically confirm the cause of these symptoms nor establish who is responsible for the attack,” said MSF Director of Operations Bart Janssens.

“However, the reported symptoms of the patients, in addition to the epidemiological pattern of the events, characterized by the massive influx of patients in a short period of time, the origin of the patients, and the contamination of medical and first aid workers, strongly indicate mass exposure to a neurotoxic agent.

“This would constitute a violation of international humanitarian law, which absolutely prohibits the use of chemical and biological weapons.”

The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has given its latest assessment of the number of casualties from the alleged attacks.

The British-based group said it estimated that 322 had died, 54 of them children.

In the immediate aftermath, casualty figures varied widely with opposition activists saying between several hundred and more than 1,000 had been killed.

MSF’s disclosure adds to mounting allegations that chemical weapons were used in suburbs to the east of Damascus and in an area to the south-west on August 21.

Unverified video footage posted soon afterwards shows civilians, many of them children, dead or suffering from what appear to be horrific symptoms consistent with a chemical attack.

Rebels and opposition activists accuse forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad of carrying out such attacks.

But state TV accuses the rebels, saying barrels of chemical weapons were found as troops entered previously rebel-held districts.

Soldiers had “suffocated” as they tried to enter Jobar, one of the towns in the Ghouta district around Damascus.

The Pentagon has decided to move its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has suggested.

Chuck Hagel gave no details, but media reports say the US Navy is strengthening its presence in the eastern Mediterranean.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said fresh allegations of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government this week was of “grave concern”.

Syria’s main ally Russia said there was evidence rebels were behind the attack.

Chuck Hagel has suggested that the Pentagon is moving its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there

Chuck Hagel has suggested that the Pentagon is moving its forces closer to Syria as the US weighs its options in the conflict there

The Syrian opposition, however, has said hundreds died in a government assault on the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday.

Despite calls from many different countries, there is no sign yet that the Syrian authorities will allow a UN inspection team to visit to investigate the claims.

The UN’s disarmament chief, Angela Kane, is due to arrive in Damascus on Saturday to push for access to the site. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he is determined to “conduct a thorough, impartial and prompt investigation” into the events.

Unverified footage shows civilians – many of them children – dead or suffering from what appear to be horrific symptoms as a result of the attack.

Chuck Hagel said President Barack Obama had asked the Pentagon for options on Syria, amid rising pressure on the US to intervene.

“The defense department has responsibility to provide the president with options for all contingencies,” he said.

“That requires positioning our forces, positioning our assets, to be able to carry out different options – whatever options the president might choose.”

Chuck Hagel was speaking to reporters travelling with him to Malaysia.

Earlier, US defense officials said a fourth US warship – armed with cruise missiles – had been moved into the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The officials stressed that the US Navy had received no orders to prepare for military action.

President Barack Obama has said the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria in an attack on Wednesday is a “big event of grave concern”.

Barack Obama said the US was still seeking confirmation such weapons were used, but if proved true the situation would “require America’s attention”.

Meanwhile, Syria’s main ally Russia has said there is growing evidence that rebels were behind the attack.

The opposition says hundreds died in a government assault outside Damascus.

But despite calls from many different countries, there is no sign yet that the Syrian authorities will allow a UN inspection team to visit to investigate the claims.

Unverified footage shows civilians – many of them children – dead or suffering from what appear to be horrific symptoms as a result of Wednesday’s attack.

Also on Friday, UN agencies said the number of children forced to flee Syria had reached one million.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and children’s fund, Unicef, described the figure as “a shameful milestone”, and said a further two million children were displaced within the country.

Last year, President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” and force a tough US response.

Meanwhile, Russia joined calls for an “objective investigation” by UN chemical weapons experts.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said Moscow had urged President Bashar al-Assad to co-operate with a probe, but also that questions remained about the willingness of the opposition to provide “secure, safe access of the [UN] mission to the location of the incident”.

“More new evidence is starting to emerge that this criminal act was clearly provocative,” the ministry added.

President Barack Obama said the US was seeking confirmation if chemical weapons were used in Damascus attacks

President Barack Obama said the US was seeking confirmation if chemical weapons were used in Damascus attacks

“On the internet, in particular, reports are circulating that news of the incident carrying accusations against government troops was published several hours before the so-called attack. So, this was a pre-planned action.”

The ministry also described as “unacceptable” calls from various European capitals for the UN Security Council to authorize the use of force in Syria.

Other leaders have also pushed for an urgent UN inquiry.

A spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said he was “giving his utmost attention to the tragic situation” and intended to conduct a “thorough, impartial and prompt investigation”.

The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, Angela Kane, will travel to Damascus on Saturday to push for access for the UN inspectors.

“It is of paramount importance that all those who share the concern and urgency of investigating these allegations, equally share the responsibility of co-operating in generating a safe environment for the [UN] mission to do its job,” Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman added.

Damascus has described the allegations that it sanctioned the use of chemical weapons as “illogical and fabricated”.

The main opposition alliance, the National Coalition, has meanwhile said that it will do everything to assist the UN inspectors and ensure their safety.

“It is critical that those inspectors get there within 48 hours. The clock is ticking and we want to see those inspectors and we believe that the evidence will show who used those chemical weapons against innocent civilians,” spokesman Khaled Saleh told the Reuters news agency.

Opposition activists are also reportedly trying to smuggle tissue samples from victims’ bodies to the UN inspectors to prove their claims.

“The UN team spoke with us and since then we prepared samples of hair, skin and blood and smuggled them back into Damascus with trusted couriers,” activist Abu Nidal told Reuters.

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Syrian state television has reported that Israeli rockets have hit Jamraya army research centre near Damascus.

Witnesses heard huge explosions near the Jamraya facility, and residents said nearby military positions were also hit.

The Jamraya site was the target of an Israeli strike in January.

Earlier, unnamed Israeli officials said that on Friday Israeli aircraft had attacked a shipment of missiles inside Syria.

Israeli rockets have hit Jamraya army research centre near Damascus

Israeli rockets have hit Jamraya army research centre near Damascus

The missiles were believed to be destined for Hezbollah militants in neighboring Lebanon.

The latest attacks come amid reports of massacres in a campaign of sectarian cleansing near the coastal region of central Syria.

Heavy explosions shook Damascus overnight. Amateur footage posted online claimed to show the blasts at the Jamraya research centre, on Mount Qassioun overlooking Damascus.

Residents said military bases in the area had also been hit.

Syrian state media said the attack showed that there was an organic link between Israel and the rebels.

“The new Israeli attack is an attempt to raise the morale of the terrorist groups, which have been reeling from strikes by our noble army,” state TV said, referring to recent offensives by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted eyewitnesses in the area as saying they saw jets in the sky at the time of the explosions.

There was no immediate comment from Israeli officials on the latest explosions.

Israeli officials have confirmed their forces have carried out two air strikes on Syrian targets this year.

The first attack, in January, apparently targeted the Jamraya facility.

The second, two days ago, targeted a consignment of missiles bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

In a separate development, hundreds of Syrian families have fled the coastal area of central Syria amid reports of massacres.

Activists said that more than 100 people, including women and children, were killed in the Sunni village of al-Bayda and the nearby coastal town of Baniyas.

More than 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

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Syrian PM Wael al-Halqi has survived a car bomb attack targeting his convoy in western Mazzeh district of Damascus, state television said.

There are also reported to be a number of casualties.

UK-based activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Wael Halqi’s bodyguard had been killed, AFP news agency reported.

The blast is believed to have been a suicide attack.

Syrian PM Wael al-Halaqi has survived a car bomb attack targeting his convoy in western Mazzeh district of Damascus

Syrian PM Wael al-Halqi has survived a car bomb attack targeting his convoy in western Mazzeh district of Damascus

Syrian state television said the explosion happened at a busy intersection. A picture which activists said was of the scene after the attack showed a large plume of black smoke rising into the air near a road and a high-rise building.

Activist groups said a bus and a car had been set on fire.

Mezzeh is a government-controlled quarter housing a military airport which is vital to the regime’s defenses.

Syrian forces and rebels have been fighting around Damascus for months but with neither side gaining an upper hand.

Monday’s attack is the latest bombing inside government-controlled areas.

Late last year there was a suicide bomb attack on the interior ministry. The state media said top officials had escaped unhurt, but it later emerged that the minister himself had been badly injured.

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A car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital Damascus killing at least 31 people and sending smoke billowing across the capital’s skyline.

State media blamed the blast near the headquarters of the ruling Baath party on “terrorists”.

TV pictures showed images of dead people. Overseas activists said at least 31 people had been killed.

The violence comes as Russia and the Arab League say they want to broker direct government-opposition talks.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the war as “a road to nowhere”.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition is holding a two-day meeting in Egypt to discuss a framework for a possible solution.

Some 70,000 people have died since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, the UN says.

Police and witnesses said the blast was a car bomb. It went off in the central Mazraa neighborhood, close to the Baath offices and Russian embassy.

Surrounding roads are reported to have been closed off to traffic and firefighters and medical staff were at the scene.

State and pro-regime TV showed pictures of dead bodies and destroyed cars.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 31 people had been killed in the explosion.

A car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital Damascus killing at least 31 people and sending smoke billowing across the capital's skyline

A car bomb exploded in the Syrian capital Damascus killing at least 31 people and sending smoke billowing across the capital’s skyline

Witnesses told AP news agency the car had exploded at a security checkpoint between the Russian embassy and the Baath Party central headquarters.

“It was huge. Everything in the shop turned upside down,” one local resident said. He said three of his employees were injured by flying glass that killed a young girl who was walking by when the blast hit.

“I pulled her inside the shop but she was almost gone. We couldn’t save her. She was hit in the stomach and head.”

Syrian state media said the explosion had struck near a school and clinic and that schoolchildren were among the casualties.

There have been two other explosions in the city, also at security checkpoints.

And heavy fighting between government and rebel forces is continuing around the city, with the government carrying out air strikes in the suburbs.

Sergei Lavrov said the Kremlin and the Arab League wanted to establish direct contact between the Syrian government and the opposition.

Speaking in Moscow, where he hosted league officials and several Arab foreign ministers, the Russian foreign minister said that sitting down at a negotiating table was the only way to end the conflict without irreparable damage to Syria.

“Neither side can allow itself to rely on a military solution to the conflict, because it is a road to nowhere, a road to mutual destruction of the people,” he said.

Sergei Lavrov and Arab League General Secretary Nabil Elaraby said their priority was to create a transitional government to navigate a way out of the violence.

No conditions for the negotiations have been set, they said.

The proposal initially received a cool reception from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), with senior member Abdelbaset Sieda insisting Bashar al-Assad and his allies “must go first”.

“After that we can discuss with others in the regime who didn’t share in the killing of our people,” he said.

But the news agency Reuters says it has seen a draft SNC communiqué being discussed in Cairo which demonstrates an apparent softening in the group’s stance.

The document reasserts the group’s position that Bashar al-Assad’s apparatus cannot be part of any political solution in Syria, but omits previous demands that Assad’s regime must go even before any talks, Reuters says.

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Syrian footballer Youssef Sleiman has been killed in a mortar strike near a stadium in Damascus, state news agency Sana says.

Sana news agency says two shells landed near Tishreen stadium in Baramkeh district, where Al-Wathba and Al-Nawair teams were preparing to train.

Several other players were injured in the attack “by terrorists”, Sana said.

It comes a day after state media said two mortars landed near Tishreen presidential palace in another area of Damascus without reports of injuries.

Rebels and troops have been fighting in and around Damascus for months.

Opposition sources say more than 50 people were killed in Damascus suburbs on Tuesday.

Elsewhere, at least 31 people were also killed on Tuesday in an army rocket attack in Syria’s second city, Aleppo, eyewitnesses and activists said, in one of the deadliest incident in recent days.

The UN says about 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

Homs-based club Al-Wathba and Al-Nawair, from Hama, were getting ready to go to the stadium when the shells struck, reports say.

Syrian footballer Youssef Sleiman has been killed in a mortar strike near a stadium in Damascus

Syrian footballer Youssef Sleiman has been killed in a mortar strike near a stadium in Damascus

The players, who were staying in a nearby complex, were hit by shrapnel, the reports said.

AFP news agency quoted an unnamed sports official as saying four Al-Nawair players were injured.

Youssef Sleiman belonged to Al-Wathba.

“We were collecting our things about to head to the stadium when we heard the first explosion and the windows were blown off,” Ali Ghosn, a 20-year-old player, told the Associated Press.

“Youssef was hit in the neck. We ran out to the corridor when the second explosion struck and I saw Youssef fall down bleeding from his neck,” he said.

A Lebanese judge meanwhile has recommended the death penalty for a former pro-Syrian Lebanese minister for allegedly plotting attacks.

Michel Samaha is accused, along with Syrian security chief Ali Mamlouk, of “transporting explosives from Syria to Lebanon in an attempt to assassinate Lebanese political and religious leaders,” according to a copy of the indictment seen by AFP.

Michel Samaha, a member of parliament, was arrested in Beirut in August, while Ali Mamlouk remains free.

The former minister’s arrest came as a surprise in Lebanon, where the current coalition government includes Syria’s allies.

Ignatius IV (Hazim), the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, has died in neighboring Lebanon at the age of 92.

Syria’s state news agency, Sana, reported that Patriarch Ignatius died in Beirut’s St George’s hospital on Wednesday after suffering a stroke.

His remains would be brought from Lebanon to Syria for burial, it added.

Ignatius had led the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All The East, the largest Arab Christian Church in the Middle East, since 1979.

There are believed to be about a million members, the majority of whom are Syrians.

The Church is one of 14 autocephalous (ecclesiastically independent) Eastern Orthodox patriarchates, third in honorific rank after the churches of Constantinople and Alexandria.

Since the 14th Century, the patriarch has resided in Damascus.

Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, has died in neighboring Lebanon at the age of 92

Ignatius IV Hazim, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Syria, has died in neighboring Lebanon at the age of 92

Patriarch Ignatius was born in 1920 in the village of Murhada, near Hama.

In 1961, he was ordained Bishop of Palmyra, in central Syria. Nine years later, he became Metropolitan of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast.

Syria’s minority Christian community has not joined the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. Many Christians are fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslim community chooses an Islamist leadership to replace decades of secular rule.

NATO has approved the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria.

The long-expected move emerged from a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, and amid growing fears that Syria could use chemical weapons.

NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the ministers had “unanimously expressed grave concerns” about the use of chemical weapons.

Syria has said it would never use such weapons against its own people.

The meeting of the 28-member Western military alliance’s foreign ministers in Brussels follows a request from Turkey to boost its defences along the border.

NATO has approved the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries along Turkey's border with Syria

NATO has approved the deployment of Patriot anti-missile batteries along Turkey’s border with Syria

In a statement, NATO said it had “agreed to augment Turkey’s air defence capabilities in order to defend the population and territory of Turkey and to contribute to the de-escalation of the crisis along the alliance’s border”.

Recent intelligence assessments have indicated Damascus is contemplating using ballistic missiles, potentially armed with chemical warheads.

Speaking after the meeting, Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters that the foreign ministers had “unanimously expressed grave concerns” about the reports, saying: “Any such action would be completely unacceptable and a clear breach of international law.”

He would not give further details on the deployment, but said it would ensure effective protection of Turkey against any missile attack, whether carrying chemical weapons or not.

NATO officials have previously made clear such a move would be purely defensive.

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At least 34 people have been killed and many injured by two car bomb explosions in Jaramana, a south-eastern district of Damascus, Syrian state media report.

State television said “terrorists” were behind the blasts in Jaramana and broadcast pictures showing several charred vehicles and damaged buildings.

The district is predominantly Druze and Christian, two communities which have so far not joined the uprising.

Earlier, there were clashes between security forces and rebels in Jaramana.

There has been fierce fighting in recent days in eastern parts of the countryside around Damascus, known as the Ghouta.

The pro-government TV channel, Addounia, said the car bombs exploded in Jaramana shortly after 06:40 local time.

“Terrorists blew up two car bombs filled with a large amount of explosives in the main square,” the official Sana news agency reported.

State television quoted a source at the interior ministry as saying that 34 people had died and 83 had been seriously injured.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, put the death toll at 38.

“Activists and residents in the town said most of the victims were killed when a suicide attacker blew up his car, just after an explosive device was used to blow up another car,” it said.

At least 34 people have been killed and many injured by two car bomb explosions in Jaramana, a south-eastern district of Damascus

At least 34 people have been killed and many injured by two car bomb explosions in Jaramana, a south-eastern district of Damascus

Two smaller bombs also exploded in Jaramana at around the same time as the attack, Sana said, adding that nobody was killed by them.

No group has said it was behind the bombings, and there was no immediately obvious military or government target.

“What do they want from Jaramana? The town brings together people from all over Syria and welcomes everybody,” one resident told the AFP news agency.

The population of Jaramana is mainly Christian and Druze, a heterodox offshoot of Islam. It is also home to many Palestinian and Iraqi refugees.

Few members of Syria’s minority groups have supported the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. They are fearful for their future if the country’s majority Sunni Muslim community chooses an Islamist leadership to replace decades of secular rule.

Supporters of the government in Jaramana and other Damascus suburbs have set up armed vigilante groups – known as Popular Committees – to prevent attacks such as Wednesday’s. On 29 October, 11 people were killed in a car bombing in Jaramana.

Elsewhere on Wednesday, witnesses told AFP that rebel fighters had captured the pilot of a warplane shot down over Darat Izza, in the northern province of Aleppo. One of the agency’s reporters earlier saw a large explosion as the jet crashed near the town.

Fighter jets earlier bombarded rebel positions in the western Damascus suburb of Darayya, the SOHR said.

The government army also reportedly shelled Zabadani, a town in the mountains north-west of the capital. The Syrian Revolution General Commission, an opposition activist network, said more than 50 shells had fallen on the town in 30 minutes, injuring several people.

The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC), another activist network, reported that at least 50 people had been killed across the country on Wednesday, most of them in Jaramana.

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

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Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khalidi, a senior Syrian air force general, has been killed in a Damascus suburb, state television reports.

Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khalidi was shot dead late on Monday in the capital’s Rukn al-Din district, it said.

The attack appears to be the latest in a string of rebel attacks on high-level figures from President Bashar al-Assad’s administration.

In July a bomb killed the country’s defence minister and Bashar al-Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat.

“As part of their campaign to target national personalities and scientists, armed terrorist groups assassinated Air Force General Abdullah Mahmud al-Khalidi in the Damascus district of Rukn al-Din,” the broadcaster said.

It added that he was one of Syria’s foremost experts in aviation.

Abdullah Mahmoud al-Khalidi was also a member of the Syrian Air Force command, Agence France Presse reports.

 

International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has met Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the UN and the Arab League, is in Damascus to press both the government and the rebels to observe a truce over the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

On Friday, Lakhdar Brahimi met with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and opposition leaders.

There has been no sign of the violence abating, with an explosion reported in a Christian area of Damascus on Sunday.

The attack apparently targeted a police station in the Bab Touma district of the old city.

Unconfirmed reports say at least one person was killed and several injured.

 

Heavy clashes were also reported on the main road between Damascus and Aleppo on Saturday, particularly around the town of Maarat al-Numan.

The town has been in rebel hands for more than a week and is seen as strategically important to maintaining a supply route between Syria’s largest city Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

Civilians in Syria are desperate for a ceasefire but many doubt President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will agree.

A ceasefire that started on 12 April was soon broken and more violence prevailed.

Lakhdar Brahimi is calling for a ceasefire over the festival of Eid al-Adha, which begins on Friday and lasts over the weekend.

For much of the past 18 months, rebel groups have been fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government and at least 30,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Repeated efforts by the international community to find a diplomatic solution have foundered because of a deep divide at the UN Security Council.

In videos posted online, one rebel group said it was willing to respect a ceasefire given certain conditions, while other groups have not made a decision.

 

Four Syrian military guards were killed after suicide attackers drove vehicle bombs into the military HQ in the heart of Damascus, officials say.

State TV quoted army sources saying that 14 others were hurt in the attacks, contradicting earlier official accounts that said no one had died.

The rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) said it had carried out the attack, but did not mention suicide bombings.

State TV broadcast footage of a minibus slowing before exploding at the HQ.

Suicide attackers drove vehicle bombs into the military HQ in the heart of Damascus

Suicide attackers drove vehicle bombs into the military HQ in the heart of Damascus

Gunfire reverberated around the city for hours after the bombings, as rebels fought with soldiers at the compound.

Official media said “terrorist attackers” had opened fire inside the perimeter of the compound and in nearby streets, and security forces had confronted them.

State TV said those killed were guards at the compound, and both civilian and military personnel had been wounded.

Witnesses said the blasts ignited a fire that engulfed much of the main building that houses the army’s General Staff.

State media insisted earlier that no senior officers were hurt.

The blasts happened just before 07:00 local time close to one of the city’s busiest areas, Umayyad Square, which is dominated by government buildings.

Roads leading to the area were blocked off as the authorities dealt with the aftermath.

Diplomats living close to the area said the blasts were the biggest they had heard for months.

Buildings more than 1 km (half a mile) away shook violently under the force of the explosions.

The staff command compound represents the heart of the Syrian army.

And the attack comes days after FSA announced it had moved its command from Turkey to Syria in an apparent attempt to bolster its fight against regime forces.

Damascus resident Jean-Pierre Duthion said his entire building shook and windows were shattered.

“We all ran into the corridor, in the place without windows or anything, and we were just waiting until it stopped,” he said.

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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.

 

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near the capital, Damascus, accusing government troops of a “massacre”.

Many of those killed in the town of Darayya were victims of execution-style killings, the activists said.

According to unconfirmed reports, 200 bodies were discovered in houses and basement shelters.

Without commenting on the activists’ claim, Syrian state TV said Darayya was being “cleansed of terrorist remnants”.

Meanwhile, Syrian Vice-President Farouq al-Shara has greeted an Iranian delegation in Damascus, quashing weeks of speculation that he had defected to the opposition.

President Bashar al-Assad, who also met the Iranian delegation, said Syria would continue its current policy “whatever the cost” and accused Western nations of a regional conspiracy.

The forces of President Bashar al-Assad launched an assault on Darayya on Saturday, after days of heavy bombardment.

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near Damascus, accusing government troops of a "massacre

Syrian opposition activists say scores of bodies have been found in a town near Damascus, accusing government troops of a "massacre

The attack was part of a wider campaign to reclaim the southern outskirts of Damascus, where rebels have been regrouping since being driven out a month ago.

Activists on the ground later posted unverified video footage on the internet, which shows rows of bodies side by side in the Abu Auleiman al-Darani mosque.

The activists say that many of the victims had gunshot wounds to the head and chest and were killed during house-to-house raids by government troops.

“Assad’s army has committed a massacre in Darayya,” an opposition member told Reuters.

The activist added that most of the victims had been killed at close range, and some died from sniper fire.

The opposition Local Coordination Committees group put the death toll for Saturday at 440 across Syria.

Another opposition group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says 320 people were killed in Darayya over five days, not on Saturday alone.

The claims by the activists have not been independently verified because of restrictions placed on foreign media across Syria.

The official Syrian state news agency said: “Our heroic armed forces cleansed Darayya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town and scared them and sabotaged and destroyed public and private property.”

Meanwhile Vice-President Farouq al-Shara was seen entering his office for a meeting with an Iranian delegation, following weeks of rumors that he had defected.

State media said a “fake” email had been sent out saying Farouq al-Shara had been sacked and that this was “completely wrong”.

After welcoming the Iranian team, President Bashar al-Assad accused some Western and regional countries of trying to “deviate Syria from its stance”.

State news agency Sana quoted him as saying: “Because Syria is the cornerstone, foreign powers are targeting it so their conspiracy succeeds across the entire region.”

Local activists say the type of mass killing reportedly carried out in Darayya, with dozens of bodies being discovered following government raids, has increased in recent months.

Human Rights Watch said it was not a new pattern, but was now happening in more areas and in greater numbers.

An earlier report from United Nations observers found that both sides had carried out massacres, but the Syrian army was responsible for a far greater number of deaths.

Fighting continued in other parts of Syria on Sunday, including in the second city of Aleppo, where fighter jets dropped bombs on rebel-held positions in what was described as the fiercest fighting there in the past week.

In a separate development, the head of the UN mission to Syria left the country after the mission had been wound up.

Senegalese Lt. Gen Babacar Gaye joined a UN convoy to Lebanon on Saturday.

Last week, the UN decided against extending the mission, which was originally part of a six-point peace plan for Syria.

However, the ceasefire mandated by the plan never took hold and rising violence forced the UN monitors to be confined to their hotels since June.

 

The United Nations has decided to end its military observer mission in Syria, days before its mandate expired.

A small, civilian office will be set up instead to maintain political contacts.

“The conditions to continue UNSMIS were not filled,” France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud said after a Security Council meeting.

The United Nations has decided to end its military observer mission in Syria, days before its mandate expired

The United Nations has decided to end its military observer mission in Syria, days before its mandate expired

The UN mission had been part of envoy Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan. But continued violence made the observers’ mission increasingly difficult.

A bomb exploded close to their hotel in Damascus on Wednesday. The observers’ patrols were suspended in mid-June because of the “significant risk to their lives” and diplomats said the condition for renewing their mandate – a reduction in violence – had not been met.

Russia warned earlier that pulling out of Syria would have “serious negative consequences” for the region.

Moscow’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin said Russia, which has vetoed three UN Security Council resolutions on Syria, wanted the UN to make an international appeal for the Syrian conflict to end.

Kofi Annan resigned as UN-Arab League envoy to Syria a fortnight ago, complaining of a “clear lack of unity” in the Security Council.

Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.

Vitaly Churkin said Russia had called for a meeting on Friday of Security Council members as well as representatives from Saudi Arabia and Iran to discuss the crisis.

 

Syrian television reports that a bomb has exploded on the third floor of the state TV and radio building in the capital, Damascus.

Three people were reported wounded and the explosion caused some damage but state TV continued broadcasting.

Rebel forces took over several areas of Damascus in recent weeks, but the army has since regained control of the city.

More than 20,000 troops are now aiming to wrest control of the country’s second city, Aleppo, from the rebels.

A bomb has exploded on the third floor of Syrian state TV and radio building in the capital, Damascus

A bomb has exploded on the third floor of Syrian state TV and radio building in the capital, Damascus

The explosion in Umawiyeen Square in central Damascus had “ripped the floor” but had left the transmission of the three Syrian channels unaffected.

Pro-government TV channel al-Ikhbariya showed pictures of staff looking after an injured colleague. In June, gunmen attacked its offices, south of Damascus, killing seven people, including journalists and security guards.

Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi told Syrian TV that national media had been targeted in the “desperate and cowardly” attack. An investigation was under way to find out who planted the bomb inside the building, he added.

State TV’s buildings have also been attacked in many provincial cities, most recently in Aleppo.

The army has surrounded Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital, and tanks have tried to push into two key rebel-held areas, Salah al-Din and Saif al-Dawla, which lie on the main road into the city.

A rebel commander was one of nine people killed in Salah al-Din on Monday, according to British-based group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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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.