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Syria conflict: Rebels seize Turkey, Iraq border posts

A video image provided by opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (19 Jul 2012) Video was posted on the internet of rebels defacing a poster of President Assad at the Bab al-Hawa crossing

“Syrian rebels have captured a number of positions on the country’s borders with Turkey and Iraq.

A senior Iraqi official said all the crossings on Syria‘s eastern frontier had been seized. At one point, two Turkish posts were also in rebel hands.

The push came a day after a bomb claimed the lives of three senior defence officials in Damascus.

At the UN, negotiations are under way on extending the mandate of the observer mission in Syria,

The mandate for the mission is due to expire on Friday.

There are almost 300 UN observers in Syria, but the mission suspended most of its monitoring activity in June, because of the risk from increasing violence.

The US says it might consider a final brief extension of the monitors work, but warned that it could not pin its policy on an unarmed mission.

The UK is said to be proposing an extension for a “final 30 days”.

As the situation in Syria becomes more unpredictable and violent, the diplomacy in New York is lagging behind events on the ground, says the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan at the UN.

Escalating battle

The rebels, perhaps sensing that the regime was too preoccupied with the escalating battle for the capital, stormed all the posts on the Iraqi border, the BBC’s Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says.

Map

The major Abu Kamal crossing on the Euphrates river in the east was captured after a clash with government forces, opposition activists said.

More than 20 Syrian soldiers and their commander were killed when a remote army outpost in the far north-east was attacked, Associated Press news agency reported.

Iraq’s government, seen as sympathetic to President Bashar al-Assad, has threatened to shut its side of the border and one official told Reuters news agency that it was closing the Abu Kamal crossing.

On the frontier with Turkey, too, rebels were said to have taken control of two posts, at Bab al-Hawa and Jarablus.

Video from the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib province soon emerged of rebels defacing a portrait of President Assad, but they later reportedly withdrew from the position.

First images

For four days, rebels have been involved in clashes in areas of the capital as they push their “Damascus volcano” operation against Syrian armed forces.

Damascus-based activist Hassan describes how people are too afraid to venture outside

The deaths of three top security officials has led to a mobilisation of government troops in an attempt to drive the rebels out of the city.

The president’s brother-in-law, the defence minister and head of the government’s crisis team were killed by a bomb as they attended a meeting at the national security headquarters.

The first images of President Assad since the attack have appeared, largely ending rumours he might have been hurt.

The footage appeared to show Gen Fahd Jassim al-Furayj, chief of staff of the armed forces, being sworn into his new post as defence minister.

Tanks and armoured vehicles were reported to have moved into Qaboun on Thursday, close to the centre of Damascus.

There were heavy casualties, activists said, as a result of an army bombardment of Zamalka in the eastern outskirts of Damascus.

Analysis

image of Laura Trevelyan Laura Trevelyan BBC News, New York

The mood inside the Security Council chamber was acrimonious after China and Russia vetoed the resolution. Britain’s ambassador accused the two nations of protecting a brutal regime by their actions. America’s ambassador said the council had failed utterly in the most important task on its agenda.

China’s ambassador denounced what he called an uneven resolution which placed pressure on one side, while Russia’s representative claimed the resolution would have opened the path to military involvement in Syria’s affairs.

Now negotiations are under way to try to extend the mandate of the UN monitoring mission in Syria which is due to expire on Friday.

The mission is supposed to monitor a ceasefire and support a political process – neither of which exist. So the UK is proposing a 30 day “final” extension.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number of fatalities across the country on Thursday at 250.

‘Indefensible’

The pace of events in Syria was in marked contrast to the diplomatic stalemate at the UN Security Council, where Russia and China vetoed a Western resolution calling for tougher sanctions on Damascus.

Under the Western-backed plan, the Damascus government would have been threatened with non-military sanctions under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter if it failed to move troops and heavy weapons from populated areas.

But the use of Chapter Seven paved the way for “external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs”, Russia’s UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin argued.

The UK, US and France said the UN had failed the people of Syria and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of the veto as “inexcusable and indefensible”.”

Map of Damascus area
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On the front lines of Syria’s guerrilla war

 

Exclusive account of Sham Falcons, a rebel group waging war against the Assad government from their mountain hideouts.

“Idlib Province, Syria Dawn broke over the northern mountains of Jabal al-Zawiya late last month to find a group of anti-government fighters hiding along a ridge line, waiting for their remote-controlled bomb to destroy an army convoy on the road below.

The roughly 100 guerrillas were members of a larger group known as the Sham Falcons. Like many of the hundreds of ad hoc rebel groups that have sprung up across Syria, they are loosely trained but closely knit, and armed only with Kalashnikov rifles, PKT machine guns and a few rocket-propelled grenades.

Like other armed fighting groups, they were drawn from local towns and villages that carried fierce resistance to the Damascus government of President Bashar al-Assad and claimed to have suffered from its brutality. Like so many Syrians, they decided to fight back.

In the distance, headlights approached. Dozens of government soldiers approached in a procession of pick-up trucks and an armoured infantry vehicle. The night before, the rebels had planted a roadside TNT explosive at a key point on the way to a government position.

As the convoy passed below, the designated triggerman detonated the bomb with a converted garage-door opener. The ensuing blast ripped up a massive section of road, but was detonated too soon to destroy the infantry carrier that was the target of the attack.

Return fire came within seconds. Mortars and gunfire from the pursuing government soldiers filled the mountains as the rebel fighters ran several kilometres to escape.

On this day, the men were lucky. They sustained no injuries, and rebel fighter Hamza Fatalah said the ambush had killed three enemy soldiers. The morning’s bombing was a small victory for the Sham Falcons, but its leaders were realistic.

“We are using very simple weapons against the highly sophisticated weapons of the regime,” said Fatalah, a former Syrian army lieutenant who defected at the beginning of the uprising.

Before the revolution many, like Fatalah, worked as police officers or soldiers for the government. Others were students, farmers or taxi drivers. United by the government’s alleged atrocities, Fatalah said they now fight like brothers.

In pockets of resistance across Syria, groups such as these carry out missions against an army equipped with tanks and helicopters. They fight back with homemade bombs, limited weapons and meagre medical supplies. Many of these operations are carried out on foot or on motorbikes, with the occasional pick-up truck concealed beneath trees a safe distance away.

Attack aftermath

After the narrow escape, the men regrouped and returned to their various village bases.

In the village of Shanan, the men from Fatalah’s unit discussed various aspects of the mission and plans for the next one while they sipped tea under the shade of a large fruit tree.

“I’m responsible for planning operations and discussing them with the other fighters,” Fatalah said.

“Before an operation, we first monitor the location and plan the attack, making sure we have a secure withdrawal.”

The Sham Falcons of Jabal al-Zawiya claim to number about 2,000 armed men, broken down into eight 250-man battalions.

Of the 36 villages that form the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the province of Idlib, eight are currently under rebel control. These opposition villages form the core of the Sham Falcon network, bases that control security, conduct checkpoints and carry out missions in the surrounding areas against Assad’s forces.

Most are sniper operations or roadside bombs, the Sham Falcons’ leaders said. Sometimes they launch full-scale attacks on government checkpoints and weapons caches.

“At first, we used our own money to buy hunting rifles,” said Sham Falcon commander Ahmed al-Sheikh.

“Some businessmen began to donate money for weapons, but anyone supporting the revolution was targeted by the regime and many became scared. Now, most of our weapons we capture during operations like this.”

Al-Sheikh said of the weapons and ammunition purchased, the majority is brought from the regime itself. Corrupt officers sell government weapons stocks at inflated prices. Kalashnikov bullets that once sold for $0.40 a piece have risen to $4 each.

“These men are mercenaries,” he said of his suppliers. “Their only belief is in money.”

Rest and recuperation

Back in the village of Shanan, the fighters gathered for lunch on the floor around a spread of falafel, hummus and vegetables.

The majority of the men are fathers with families living nearby. Since the uprising, their lives now centre around the fight and most of their meals are shared at the base. On any given night, around half of the men sleep at the base with rotating shifts to stand guard and man the radio.

As he dipped bread into a bowl of hummus, unit commander Asad Ibrahim said their meals are basic, but hearty.

“We eat this every day. It gives us fast legs so we can run from the enemy,” he joked.

The following day, that mobility was definitely in order. Government helicopters found the men during a meeting in an area that offered only the feeble cover of olive trees, and strafed them with heavy fire.

Helicopter attacks are frequent in these mountains, the men said. In the neighbouring village of Kafr Ruma, the smoke from air and artillery shelling rose in columns for three days. Al Jazeera witnessed as two helicopters circled the area, the deadly spray of their indiscriminate gunfire echoing in the distance.

Among those killed in the attacks were an eight-year-old boy and his father, who were shot en route to the government hospital, where the man’s wife had just given birth to their second child. In this same hospital, a 15-year-old girl lay in critical condition, injured by tank fire. Village leaders say 80 more were injured in the attacks.

Government crackdowns like these have led many men to leave the army and join the Sham Falcons in their fight to topple the Assad regime.

 

For Mohmoud Tara, who defected six months ago to the Falcons, it was one scene in particular that convinced him to leave his post in Aleppo.

“We were ordered to shoot the protesters demonstrating at Aleppo University,” he said.

“Most of the time I would shoot in the air, but many of my colleagues would use excessive force, hitting, cursing and humiliating those arrested. They dropped one student from the top of a six-storey building onto the grounds of the university. They continued as if nothing had happened. It was a horrible feeling. I felt pity but I could say nothing or I would be treated like those students.”

Tara soon defected and joined the rebel forces.

Al Shiekh said the goal of the Sham Falcons and other rebel groups operating throughout Syria is simply to protect the Syrian people, to end the bloodshed and insure a fair and democratic political system is installed.

“We want the people of the world to understand us as people, to see our revolution from a human prospective,” said Al Sheikh. “The Syrian people can not turn back. We must fight until victory.”

Follow Tracey Shelton on Twitter: @tracey_shelton

Source: AlJazeera News

U.N. vehicles hit by explosion in Syria

An image grab from Youtube on May 15, 2012 allegedly shows a UN observers convoy after a roadside bomb exploded.
An image grab from Youtube on May 15, 2012 allegedly shows a UN observers convoy after a roadside bomb exploded.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Government forces fire on a funeral procession, opposition groups say
  • NEW: 63 people are reportedly killed Tuesday
  • Syria says “scores” of people are killed or hurt by a terrorist bomb in Banyas
  • The government touts the “widest turnout” for parliamentary elections

By the CNN Wire Staff

(CNN) — A four-vehicle U.N. convoy was struck by a blast from an explosive device Tuesday in Syria, the United Nations said.

No U.N. personnel were injured, but three vehicles were damaged, said Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for Kofi Annan, special envoy to Syria for both the United Nations and the Arab League.

The attack on the vehicles happened around the same time government forces opened fire on a nearby funeral procession, according to opposition groups.

Twenty-three people were killed and 100 were injured in that attack, Avaaz, one of the groups, said.

Another opposition group, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, described dozens of people falling to the ground after government forces fired on them using heavy machine guns.

Map shows area of most recent clashesMap shows area of most recent clashes

 

Shoes are strewn about on the street and people can be seen gathering near the stopped vehicles.

Suddenly, there is a loud bang and plumes of smoke drift up into the sky. The camera flashes to what looks to be the front of the U.N. convoy, showing one of the vehicles with its hood now popped open. After a few seconds, the vehicles drive away.

“The Assad army is shelling the observers’ vehicles in Khan Cheikhoun!” someone yells.

A second video allegedly shows the attack on the funeral procession. A voice taunts what appears to be security forces.

“Are you going to shoot us, or what? You dogs, shoot!” the man shouts.

Seconds later, the forces open fire and people scatter, fleeing the area.

Idlib was the site of some of the heaviest violence Tuesday, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria.

At least 63 people were killed, including 33 in Idlib, eight in Homs, seven in Deir Ezzor, five in Hama, four in Banyas, four in Damascus suburbs, one in Hasakeh and one in Daraa, the group said.

SANA, the state-run news agency, said terrorists were preparing a bomb in Banyas when it exploded, leaving “scores” of people dead or wounded. A 3-year-old child died in the collapse of the building, SANA said.

Two law enforcement personnel were killed — one in Daraa and one in Homs, the agency reported.

Throughout the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria has blamed the violence on “armed terrorist groups.”

The jihadist Al Nusra Front has denied a claim that it was behind dual suicide bombings that killed 55 and wounded hundreds in the Syrian capital last week.

A video purportedly from Al Nusra Front released Saturday said that government buildings in Damascus were targeted “because the regime continues to shell residential civilians.”

Syrian forces carried out a siege Tuesday at Raqa University in northern Syria after a massive demonstration and fired live ammunition at a college student demonstration in Aleppo, the Local Coordination Committees said.

Some rebels say they have had to sell their cows, cars or their wives’ jewelry to buy guns and bullets to fight.

The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

International pressure against al-Assad’s government ratcheted up this week, with European Union foreign ministers imposing new sanctions against the regime Monday.

The EU ministers froze the assets of two firms and imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on three people believed to be providing funding for the regime, the European Council announced.

It was the 15th time the European Union has imposed restrictions on Syria since the popular uprising began there.

“The continuing violence is appalling,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Monday, stressing that the sanctions are aimed at the regime and not the civilian population. “As long as the repression continues, we will continue to put pressure on those responsible for it.”

Just 300 yards from the Syrian border, hundreds of Syrians have found safety at a Turkish refugee camp. Though they have fled the fighting, many are haunted by memories of the 14-month-long bloodshed.

Abu Mohammed recalled how two of his sons had been fatally shot by security forces while demonstrating in Syria about a year ago. Another son is missing, believed to be arrested and possibly killed without ever having met his 7-month-old son.

Mohammed said he cannot justify the Syrian security forces’ actions. He knows why his sons spoke up and why many are still fighting.

“We had young men that cried out and shouted, ‘Freedom!’ — and they were killed for that?” he asked rhetorically. “We just want freedom. What’s wrong with asking for freedom?”

But the Syrian government Tuesday touted “the widest turnout of voters for Syrian parliamentary elections,” which took place May 7.

“The citizens exercised their full rights, and they had total freedom in choosing their representatives,” Judge Khalaf al-Azzawi, chairman of Higher Committee for Elections, said on state TV.

The United Nations estimates that at least 9,000 people have died in the 14-month crisis, while opposition groups put the death toll at more than 11,000.

CNN cannot independently verify reports of deaths and violence because the Syrian government has severely restricted access by international media.

CNN’s Saad Abedine, Ivan Watson, Anderson Cooper and Holly Yan contributed to this report.”

Source: CNN News

 

Syrian clashes ‘kill 23 soldiers’ in city of Rastan

A picture shows the destruction of homes allegedly by Syria government forces in the city of Rastan, on 18 April 2012
The city of Rastan has seen fierce fighting in recent weeks, despite a nominal UN-backed truce

“At least 30 people – including 23 soldiers – have died in heavy overnight clashes in the central Syrian city of Rastan, according to activists.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of others were wounded in the city, in the restive Homs province.

Three troop carriers were destroyed in fighting, the UK-based group said.

If confirmed, the attack would be one of the deadliest suffered by security forces in the 14-month-long uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

It comes after government forces launched a fresh assault on Rastan at the weekend, despite a UN-backed nominal ceasefire that was supposed to come into effect just over a month ago.

Meanwhile, the EU has imposed another round of sanctions on Syria – the 15th so far – in an effort to increase pressure on the government.

‘Hama raid’

The Observatory said Rastan, which lies 180km (120 miles) north of Damascus, was subjected to sustained shelling overnight, leaving dozens of people injured.

The city, currently an opposition stronghold, has been fiercely contested during the Syrian uprising and control of the town has changed several times.

Syria map

Meanwhile, the army has raided a Sunni village north of Hama, killing five people, the Observatory said.

Activists said at least 30 people died on Sunday – mainly civilians – as violence surged at flashpoints across the country despite an increase of UN observers.

The figures cannot be verified independently, as journalists’ movements are severely restricted in Syria.

The UN on Sunday said it had 189 observers in Syria, some two-thirds of the total intended for deployment as part of a six-point peace plan mediated by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan’s six-point peace plan

1. Syrian-led political process to address the aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people

2. UN-supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians

3. All parties to ensure provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and implement a daily two-hour humanitarian pause

4. Authorities to intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons

5. Authorities to ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists

6. Authorities to respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully

The BBC’s Jonathan Head in neighbouring Turkey says neither the Syrian military nor the opposition appears to have any confidence that the plan will hold, with both using the putative ceasefire to gain ground before full-scale fighting resumes.

The EU gave no official details of its newly agreed sanctions, but an EU diplomat said the 27-member bloc had agreed to an assets freeze and visa ban on two companies and three people who are believed to be financially backing the government.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the ceasefire was “not being fully implemented”.

“There continues to be killing, torture, abuse in Syria. So it’s very important we keep the pressure on the Assad regime.”

The UN estimates at least 9,000 people have died since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011.

On Saturday, a radical Islamist group said it carried out a massive bomb attack in Damascus last week, increasing fears that extremists are taking advantage of the unrest.

The violence also once again ignited tensions in neighbouring Lebanon, where clashes in the northern city of Tripoli over the weekend left three dead, according to local media.”

Source :BBC News

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