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Reports from Inside #Damascus

4:41 PM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Throughout the day there was heavy fighting in the south of the capital between loyalist army units and rebels trying to topple the president, Bashar Al Assad, and a fourth consecutive day of air strikes by military jets on Daraya, about five kilometres from the centre of Damascus.

Sustained artillery barrages were also fired into the area, with tanks and troops facing stubborn residence from the Free Syrian Army.

Government sources had earlier predicted the military offensive in Daraya, where the regime says it faces al-Qaeda terrorists, would be wrapped up by today …

The heaviest clashes erupted between troops and rebels in the towns of Babila and Hujaira south-east of the capital, and in Harran Al Awamid, just east of the airport.

Army reinforcements had been sent to the area, according to media reports. The army also went on the offensive across the eastern outer belt of the capital, notably in the towns of Harasta and Douma, and in Eastern Ghuta, the Observatory said.

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Fighting cuts off Damascus airport, flights suspended

1:15 AM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, restricting access to its international airport, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline and EgyptAir stopped flights to the Syrian capital.

A rebel fighter who identified himself as Abu Omar, a member of the Jund Allah brigade, told Reuters that insurgents fired mortars at the airport’s runways and were blocking the road linking it with the capital.

He said insurgents were not inside the airport but were able to block access to and from it.

Another source in a Damascus rebel unit said mortars had been used in clashes near the airport but did not know whether rebels had fired mortars directly at the airport.

Their accounts could not be immediately verified because of tight restrictions on media access to Syria.

Two Austrian soldiers in a U.N. peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan Heights, disputed by Syria and Israel, were wounded when their convoy came under fire near the Damascus airport, the defense ministry said in Vienna.

Emirates said it was suspending daily flights to Damascus “until further notice”.

An official at EgyptAir said it had cancelled its Friday flight to Damascus due to the “deteriorating situation” around the airport. He said the airline would hold an urgent meeting with Egyptian officials to discuss halting all flights to Syria.

An EgyptAir flight that left at 1:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) landed in Damascus on schedule but the pilot was instructed to take off straight back to Egypt, airport sources in Cairo said.

Other airlines continued operations.

Residents said the Internet in Damascus crashed in the early afternoon and mobile and land telephone lines were functioning only intermittently. It appeared to be the worst disruption to communications since the Syrian uprising began 20 months ago.

A blog post on Renesys, a U.S. company which tracks Internet traffic worldwide, said that at 12:26 p.m. in Damascus, Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down completely.

Syria’s minister of information said “terrorists” were responsible, a pro-government TV station said.

The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power that he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.

Rebels and activists said the fighting along the road to Damascus airport, southeast of the capital, was heavier in that area than at any other time in the conflict.

“No one can come in or out of the airport,” said Abu Omar.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a opposition monitoring group, said clashes were particularly intense in Babbila, a suburb bordering the insurgent stronghold of Tadamon.

Nabeel al-Ameer, a spokesman for the rebel Military Council in Damascus, said a large number of army reinforcements had arrived along the road after three days of scattered clashes ending with rebels seizing side streets to the north of it.

REBELS CLOSING IN ON AIRPORT

“There are no clashes directly around the airport; the fighting is about 3 or 4 kilometers away,” he said earlier via Skype, adding that rebels had taken control of many secondary roads and were expected to advance towards the airport.

He said he hoped the proximity of the rebels to the airport would dissuade authorities from using it to import military equipment, but the priority now was to block the road.

There are several military airports around Damascus that are still under government control.

A Syrian security source told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the army had started a “cleansing operation” in the capital to confront rebel advances.

Elsewhere in Damascus, warplanes bombed Kafr Souseh and Daraya, two neighborhoods that fringe the centre of the city where rebels have managed to hide out and ambush army units, according to opposition activists.

“NOT LAST DAYS YET”

A senior European Union official said that Assad appeared to be preparing for a military showdown around Damascus, possibly by isolating the city with a network of checkpoints.

“The rebels are gaining ground but it is still rather slow. We are not witnessing the last days yet,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“On the outskirts of Damascus, there are mortars and more attacks. The regime is thinking of protecting itself … with checkpoints in the next few days … (It) seems the regime is preparing for major battle on Damascus.”

The Syrian security source, who is from the elite 4th Armoured Division, said one of the aims of the army’s operation was to completely cut off the suburbs – where rebels are in control – from the city centre.

In the north of the country, rebel units launched an offensive to seize an army base close to the main north-south highway that would allow them to block troop movements and cut Assad’s main supply route to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.

The Observatory said that rebel units from around Idlib province massed early on Thursday morning to attack Wadi al-Deif, a base east of the rebel-held town of Maarat al-Numan.

Wadi al-Deif has been a thorn in the side of rebel units who first besieged the station in October but met fierce resistance from government forces, backed up by air strikes.

Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of peaceful demonstrations for democratic reform but escalated, after a military crackdown on protesters, into a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed.

WARY BIG POWERS

Most foreign powers have condemned Assad but stopped short of arming rebel fighters as they fear heavy weapons could make their way into the hands of radical Islamist units, who have grown increasingly prominent in the insurgency.

Rebels decry their supporters for not providing them with surface-to-air missiles that they say they need to counter the air force. But recent looting of anti-aircraft missiles from army bases has allowed them to shoot down helicopters and jets.

“So far, there is no evidence that any of the surface-to-air missiles used to date have come from outside Syria,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“The limited number of surface-to-air missiles that have shown up all appear to have come from Syrian military stock captured by the armed opposition.”

He said the number of these missiles in rebel hands was probably over 20 but that will rise significantly as rebels are capturing military bases on an almost-daily basis.

The relatively small number of anti-aircraft missiles looted so far means that many rebel-controlled areas of the country remain vulnerable to air strikes. The Observatory said 15 citizens, including children and women, were killed during a bombing in Aleppo’s Ansari district on Thursday.

Activist video footage showed the bodies of at least four children, wrapped in red blankets and apparently wearing pyjamas. Another video showed the immediate aftermath of the attack, with the bodies of children in the street and covered in cement dust. Half of one young boy’s head was missing.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut; Yasmine Saleh and Edmund Blair in Cairo, Praveen Menon in Dubai, Georgina Prodhan in Vienna, Tarmo Virki in Helsinki and Justyna Pawlak in Brussels; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Jon Hemming)

http://news.yahoo.com/damascus-clashes-cut-off-airport-emirates-suspends-flights-141313857.html

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Syria conflict: ‘Fierce clashes’ around Damascus airport

1:15 AM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

The road to the airport of the Syrian capital Damascus has been closed and all flights cancelled amid reports of fierce clashes with rebels in the area.

The government appears to be mounting an unprecedented offensive against rebel-held districts in the east of the city, BBC correspondents report.

The clashes came as internet and phone systems in the country went down.

The Syrian government has previously cut off access to the internet during major operations.

However, correspondents say a nationwide switch-off is unprecedented.

But Syria’s information minister said “terrorists” had cut off the internet and that engineers were working to repair the fault.

‘Passengers trapped’

There have been no flights from or to Damascus airport since early Wednesday morning.

State TV reported on Wednesday evening that the airport road had been “secured” after military intervention. But correspondents say the highway remains closed and there are more reports of fighting.

It is believed that Syrian government reinforcements were sent into the area after rebels fired mortars at the runway, the BBC’s Paul Wood in Beirut reports.

A source in the Free Syrian Army told our correspondent the attack on the airport had been planned for a long time and that rebel fighters had been “inching closer and closer” over the past few days and hours.

The aim of the plan was to capture the airport and not just conduct a hit-and-run attack, the source said.

The rebels carrying out the attack were all from Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of the capital, and were well armed after capturing government weapons, including heavy weapons, in recent weeks, the source added.

Our correspondent says there have also been reports of passengers still being trapped inside the terminal and at an airport hotel. No rebels appear to be inside the airport.

UN peacekeepers injured

Despite the communication blackout, the BBC was able to get through to residents in the centre of Damascus, who said they could hear and see what they believed to be the biggest army offensive so far against rebel-held districts.

The offensive appears to be going on in the east of the city, extending to the airport 27km (17 miles) south-east of the centre.

The main road to the airport passes through rebel-held territory which has regularly been the target of government air strikes.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based activist group, also reported a major government offensive, saying clashes were most intense in the suburb of Babbila, near the rebel stronghold of Tadamun.

The group, whose information cannot be independently verified, said there were clashes all along the road.

State TV said government forces were fighting “al-Qaeda elements”, mostly in the suburbs of Duma and Daraya.

Two Austrian soldiers from a UN peacekeeping force deployed in the Golan Heights, disputed by Syria and Israel, were wounded as their convoy came under fire on the road to the airport. Their injuries are not thought to be life-threatening.

Also on Wednesday, two car bombs hit Druze and Christian areas, also to the south-east of Damascus, killing 34 people.

No group has said it was behind the bombings, and there was no immediately obvious military or government target, reports the BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut.

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

 

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-20547799

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Reporter abducted in Syria worked for Russian intelligence

12:39 AM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Moscow: Ukrainian journalist Ankhar Kochneva, who was abducted in Syria in October, has said in a YouTube video that she worked for Russian intelligence.

“I came to Syria in January 2012 as a journalist with a forged ID but my main task was to translate between Syrian officers and their Russian counterparts,” Kochneva said in Arabic in a three-minute video. “I’m here (in Syria) at the behest of Russian intelligence.”

The 40-year-old journalist said she took part in Syrian army operations in Baba Amro, Zabadani, Aleppo and Idlib.

“They kidnapped me when I was returning from Tartus to Damascus with a captain in the Syrian army whom was assigned to protect me. I ask the government of Russia and Ukraine to respond to the kidnappers’ demands.”

Kochneva, known as an expert on Syrian affairs and an outspoken supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, has been covering events in various parts of the conflict-torn Arab country freelancing for various media outlets.

The journalist went missing in early October as she travelled to the city of Homs.

On Nov 8, a video in which the kidnapped journalist pleads to the Russian and Ukrainian embassies and the Syrian government to fulfill the kidnappers’ demands was posted on the website of the Free Syrian Army.

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Voloshyn said Nov 13 the authorities had been in talks with the abductors, but refused to disclose any details.

http://zeenews.india.com/news/world/reporter-abducted-in-syria-worked-for-russian-intelligence_813698.html

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US preparing to upgrade recognition of Syria’s opposition, offer greater support

12:38 AM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is preparing to recognize Syria’s new opposition council as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people in the coming weeks, paving the way for greater U.S. support for groups seeking to oust President Bashar Assad’s regime, officials said Thursday.

Announcement of the move — which has already been taken by several U.S. allies — is planned on or around a conference of more than 70 nations in Marrakesh, Morocco, on Dec. 12. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is planning to attend the latest so-called Friends of Syria gathering.

The new status is expected to be accompanied by pledges of additional humanitarian and nonlethal logistical support for the opposition, but is unlikely to result in U.S. military assistance, at least in the short-term. Providing arms remains a matter of intense internal debate inside the administration, the officials said.

They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Speaking at a conference focused on Syria in Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, suggested that the administration was getting closer to upgrading its recognition of Syria’s opposition council.

“They are a legitimate representative of the Syrian people’s aspirations,” Ford said. “And we will work with them. We will cooperate with them. They have a vision of Syria. It’s a vision that we strongly support of a country that would be democratic, that would respect human rights, and that would be a force for stability in the region.”

“They are making real progress and I expect that our position will evolve as they themselves develop,” he added.

Recognition of the council as the sole representative of Syria’s diverse population would bring the United States into line with Britain, France and several of America’s Arab allies, which took the step shortly after the body was created at a meeting of opposition representatives in Qatar on Nov. 11.

The U.S. had been leading international efforts to prod the fractured Syrian opposition into coalescing around a leadership that would truly represent all of the country’s factions and religions. Yet it has held back from granting recognition to the group until it demonstrates that it can organize itself in credible fashion.

In particular, Washington had wanted to see the group set up smaller committees that could deal with specific immediate and short term issues, such as governing currently liberated parts of Syria and putting in place institutions to address the needs of people once Assad is ousted. Some of those committees could form the basis of a transitional government.

Despite personality clashes and some lingering divisions, the opposition coalition met again in Cairo on Wednesday and Thursday and filled committees to deal with media outreach, international law, membership issues and financial aid, according to participants.

It is still under international pressure to name a transitional government with 10 to 12 ministers, including for defense and to bridge gaps between opposition members abroad and leaders in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. The coalition is unlikely to agree on a complete leadership anytime soon, members told The Associated Press.

The U.S. evolution in recognizing Syria’s opposition closely mirrors the process the administration took last year in Libya.

In that case, Libya’s National Transitional Council moved from being “a’’ legitimate representative to “the” legitimate representative of the Libyan people. While the revolution was still going on, the council then opened an office in Washington, and the administration sent the late Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi, Libya, as an envoy in return. The move also opened the door for Libya’s new leaders to access billions of dollars in assets frozen in U.S. banks that had belonged to the Gadhafi regime.

It would be unclear, given the violence in Syria, if the U.S. will send any representative to rebel-controlled areas of the country. The conflict started 20 months ago as an uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled the country for four decades. It quickly morphed into a civil war, with rebels taking up arms to fight back against a bloody crackdown by the government. According to activists, at least 40,000 people have been killed since March 2011.

The international community is split on how to stop the violence. On Thursday, the U.N. envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he had elements for a possible peace plan but they were unworkable while world powers remained divided. Russia and China have stymied attempts by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies to increase global pressure on Assad.

For U.S. options outside the U.N., Ford said providing weapons to rebels remained an option. But he explained why he thought it was still a bad idea.

“Arms are not a strategy; arms are a tactic,” Ford said. “A military solution is not the best way for Syria. Efforts to win this by conquering one side or the other will simply prolong the violence and actually aggravate an already terrible humanitarian situation. Syria needs a political situation.”

Ford said any discussion of arms needed to take into account the growing presence of extremists in Syria, citing the activity of the al-Qaida front Jabhat al-Nusra and recent fighting between Kurds and extremists. He said extremist activity was hampering hopes of a peaceful end to the crisis.

“There is no sign off any kind of political deal to be worked out between the opposition groups and the regime,” Ford said. “That means the fighting is going to go on.”

http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/ap-sources-us-preparing-to-upgrade-recognition-of-syrias-opposition-offer-greater-support/2012/11/29/8baafd70-3a47-11e2-9258-ac7c78d5c680_story_1.html

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Syria rebels have new anti-aircraft missile systems: report

12:37 AM November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

WASHINGTON: Syrian rebels have recently obtained up to 40 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, the Washington Post reported Thursday, citing Western and Middle Eastern intelligence officials.

Some of the missiles were supplied in the past weeks by Qatar, the newspaper reported, citing two unnamed Middle Eastern intelligence officials with knowledge of the matter.

“It should be worrying to everyone,” one of the officials said. “When (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad is finished, terrorists could end up with these, and commercial flights would be at risk.”

The US government has opposed arming Syrian rebels with such weapons, fearing that they could eventually land in the hands of terrorists. US intelligence officials declined to comment on the report.

The report comes after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that the Syrian rebels downed an army helicopter with a ground-to-air missile.

“It is the first time that the rebels have shot down a helicopter with a surface-to-air missile,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The Britain-based Observatory said the missile was part of a consignment newly received by the rebels that had the potential to change the balance of forces in the 20-month conflict.

More than 40,000 people have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011, according to the Observatory.

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/Nov-29/196562-syria-rebels-have-new-anti-aircraft-missile-systems-report.ashx#ixzz2DdkkGMUV
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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Syrian Conflict: Damascus Airport Cut Off, Communications Down

10:59 PM November 29, 2012 Leave a comment

BEIRUT, Nov 29 (Reuters) – Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad just outside Damascus on Thursday, forcing the closure of the main airport road, and the Dubai-based Emirates airline suspended flights to the Syrian capital.

Residents also reported Internet connections in the capital were down and mobile and land telephone lines working only sporadically in what appeared to be the worst disruption to communications in Syria since an uprising began 20 months ago.

The past two weeks have seen rebels overrunning army bases across Syria, exposing Assad’s loss of control in northern and eastern regions despite the devastating air power that he has used to bombard opposition strongholds.

Rebels and activists said the fighting along the road to Damascus airport, southeast of the capital, was heavier in that area than at any other time in the conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a opposition monitoring group, said clashes were particularly intense in Babbila, a suburb bordering the insurgent stronghold of Tadamon.

Nabeel al-Ameer, a spokesman for the rebel Military Council in Damascus, said that a large number of army reinforcements had arrived along the road after three days of scattered clashes ending with rebels seizing side streets to the north of it.

“There are no clashes directly around the airport; the fighting is about 3 or 4 kilometres away,” he said via Skype, adding that rebels had taken control of many secondary roads and were expected to advance towards the airport.

He said that he hoped the proximity of the rebels to the airport would dissuade authorities from using it to import military equipment, but the priority now was to block the road.

A Syrian security source told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the army had started a “cleansing operation” in the capital to confront rebel advances.

Residents said the Internet in Damascus crashed in the early afternoon and mobile and land telephone lines were functioning only intermittently.

A blog post on Renesys, a U.S. company which tracks Internet traffic worldwide, said that at 12:26 p.m. in Damascus, Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down completely.

Emirates said it was suspending daily flights to Damascus “until further notice”, but other airlines continued operations.

Airport sources in Cairo said an Egypt Air flight that left at 1:30 p.m. (1130 GMT) had landed in Damascus as scheduled.

“The Egypt Air plane has arrived … and passengers are all safe but the pilot was instructed to take off back to Cairo without passengers if he felt that the situation there is not good to stay for longer,” an official at Cairo airport said.

Elsewhere in Damascus, warplanes bombed Kafr Souseh and Daraya, two neighbourhoods that fringe the centre of the city where rebels have managed to hide out and ambush army units, according to opposition activists.

“NOT LAST DAYS YET”

A senior European Union official said that Assad appeared to be preparing for a military showdown around Damascus, possibly by isolating the city with a network of checkpoints.

“The rebels are gaining ground but it is still rather slow. We are not witnessing the last days yet,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

“On the outskirts of Damascus, there are mortars and more attacks. The regime is thinking of protecting itself … with checkpoints in the next few days … (It) seems the regime is preparing for major battle on Damascus.”

In the north of the country, rebel units launched an offensive to seize an army base close to the main north-south highway that would allow them to block troop movements and cut Assad’s main supply route to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.

The Observatory said that rebel units from around Idlib province massed early on Thursday morning to attack Wadi al-Deif, a base east of the rebel-held town of Maarat al-Numan.

Wadi al-Deif has been a thorn in the side of rebel units who first besieged the station in October but met fierce resistance from government forces, backed up by air strikes.

Assad is fighting an insurgency that grew out of peaceful demonstrations for democratic reform but escalated, after a military crackdown on protesters, into a civil war in which 40,000 people have been killed.

Most foreign powers have condemned Assad but stopped short of arming rebel fighters as they fear heavy weapons could make their way into the hands of radical Islamist units, who have grown increasingly prominent in the insurgency.

Rebels decry their supporters for not providing them with surface-to-air missiles that they say they need to counter the air force. But recent looting of anti-aircraft missiles from army bases has allowed them to shoot down helicopters and jets.

“So far, there is no evidence that any of the surface-to-air missiles used to date have come from outside Syria,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch.

“The limited number of surface-to-air missiles that have shown up all appear to have come from Syrian military stock captured by the armed opposition.”

He said the number of these missiles in rebel hands was probably over 20 but that will rise significantly as rebels are capturing military bases on an almost-daily basis.

The relatively small number of anti-aircraft missiles looted so far means that many rebel-controlled areas of the country remain vulnerable to air strikes. The Observatory said 15 citizens, including children and women, were killed during a bombing in Aleppo’s Ansari district on Thursday.

Activist video footage showed the bodies of at least four children, wrapped in red blankets and apparently wearing pyjamas. Another video showed the immediate aftermath of the attack, with the bodies of children in the street and covered in cement dust. Half of one young boy’s head was missing.

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