Syrian rebels fight for city amid hopes of a 'safe haven'


FIGHTING CONTINUED in four rebel-infiltrated districts of Aleppo yesterday after US secretary of state Hillary Clinton expressed confidence that Syrian rebels were capturing more territory. The rebel campaign “will result in a safe haven inside Syria, which will then provide for further actions by the opposition,” she stated.

Determined to deny the rebels Aleppo, the government has mounted a major counter-offensive.

An armoured column was reported to be en route to the Aleppo front from the restive Idlib province while troops were being withdrawn from elsewhere along the Turkish border to take part in the operation in the city, 45km from the frontier.

“Aleppo . . . is strategically more important for the regime than Idlib,” explained Col Abdel Jabbar al-Oqaidi, the rebel Free Syrian Army’s spokesman in the city.

Lebanon, meanwhile, has asked Syria to avoid incursions or bombardments into Lebanese territory, following a number of incidents in which Lebanese civilians have been killed.

Several Lebanese, including women and children, have died during Syrian border incursions and mortar bomb attacks on Lebanese soil which Syria claims are aimed at rebel fighters who have crossed the border.

Ankara has closed all three border crossings between Turkey and Syria to commercial traffic following their seizure by rebels but will allow Syrian refugees to enter Turkey through these terminals.

Turkey has also permitted a surge in the flow of reinforcements and weapons into northern Syria since these crossings fell.

Sources in Aleppo have reported rebels establishing checkpoints, robbing passengers in cars, and fighting among themselves over positions.

Journalists accompanying rebel units in Aleppo have also reported executions of soldiers and pro-government Shabbiha militiamen. Amnesty International announced that it was investigating allegations that both sides were killing prisoners.

The UN Security Council last week raised concerns about cross-border attacks on Lebanon from Syria.

In a statement, it highlighted “repeated incidents of cross-border fire, incursions, abductions and arms trafficking across the Lebanese-Syrian border as well as other border violations”.

Lebanon’s foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, who is a supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, yesterday said a letter had been sent to the Syrian government through diplomatic channels which included “a reference to what happened on the border with the hopes of avoiding a recurrence”.

On Monday, Lebanese president Michel Suleiman asked Mr Mansour to deliver a letter of protest to Syria, a day after 30 Syrian soldiers raided homes on Lebanon’s northern flank.

Mr Mansour, however, told Hizbullah-linked TV channel al-Manar that he wanted the incident investigated before he sent a letter.

“We deal with Syria as a sister state and this relationship will not be broken now or in the future,” Mr Mansour said.

Helicopter gunships bombarded the Hajjar al-Aswad area on the southern edge of Damascus and troops shelled the Tal township in the northwest, opposition activists said.

The opposition Local Co-ordination Committees reported that the bodies of 11 executed men were found in the Qaboun district of Damascus after it was retaken by government troops. Activist Rania al-Midani said the men had been arrested in a nearby district several days earlier.

Lieut Gen Babacar Gaye, the new head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, took up his post in Damascus and pledged to resume its operations.

Lieut Gen Gaye, a Senegalese who replaced the Norwegian Maj Gen Robert Mood, said the primary concern of the mission was to “alleviate the suffering of the population”.

The UN’s chief of peacemaking, Hervé Ladsous, warned that there had to be “specific and sustainable progress” in decreasing the level of violence and ending the use of heavy weapons if the mission is to remain beyond the 30-day extension granted by the Security Council.

Mr Ladsous said that half of the 300 military observers had left, so that the “mission operates on a reduced basis, reduced in numbers, reduced in team sites in the provinces”.

However, he said it would try to launch a political process by pressing for the reduction of violence in the country.

Israeli chief-of-staff Lieut Gen Benny Gantz meanwhile told the Israeli parliament that a strike on Syria’s chemical weapons could spark a regional conflict and draw in external powers. He said Damascus had taken effective measures to control stockpiles.

Syrian ambassador to Cyprus Lamia Hariri and her husband, envoy to the United Arab Emirates Abdel Latif al-Dabbagh, have defected and flown to Qatar.

Envoys to Sweden and Iraq previously defected in protest against the regime’s crackdown.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said Washington’s reaction to the blast that killed four members of the government’s crisis management team amounted to “a direct endorsement of terrorism” and called the US position “sinister”.