UN warns fighters in Syria not to kill civilians


UN HUMANITARIAN chief Valerie Amos yesterday warned combatants involved in the Syrian conflict to avoid loss of civilian life or face prosecution for war crimes as fierce fighting continued for the third day in Damascus.

Baroness Amos observed: “As the International Committee of the Red Cross has now described the situation as an armed conflict, international humanitarian law applies across Syria in areas where there is fighting.”

Shooting was reported in the capital near the central bank in Seven Springs Square, often the site of pro-regime demonstrations, and at the headquarters of the ruling Baath party in the al-Mazra’ah area. Firing erupted on Baghdad Avenue, and rebels claim to have shot down one of the helicopters overhead.

The army was said to have deployed artillery against rebel strongholds in the capital’s outskirts where dissidents established a presence many months ago. The escalation followed the declaration on Monday night by the rebel Free Syrian Army of “Damascus Volcano”, an all-out offensive against government troops. Rebel spokesman Col Qassim Saadeddine announced, “The battle for Damascus has begun.” A diplomat in Damascus said this operation has started ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan when anti-regime protesters can be expected to take to the streets.

This battle commenced on the southern edge of the capital and has spread to the northeast and centre. A main focus has been the Midan district, where troops have surrounded rebels and refuse to allow them to retreat to less densely populated areas. Shooting has been heard in Palestinian camps where rebels retreating from the besieged Tadamon quarter have sought refuge.

The rebels also announced they launched attacks on government troops in traditional hot spots Homs, Hama and Idlib, and threatened to block main internal and international routes. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, an influential component of the ex-patriate Syrian National Council, urged Syrians to seize “this historic moment” by giving support to the rebels. “Prepare to become soldiers in this decisive battle. You will secure victory with your own two hands,” stated the movement, outlawed in Syria since 1963.

The opening of the offensive has been timed to coincide with the UN Security Council’s consideration of a draft resolution, proposed by Britain, the US, France and Germany. It would extend the deployment of the UN monitoring mission in Syria for 45 days and place implementation of the peace plan proposed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan under chapter seven of the UN charter which authorises military action as well as sanctions if threats are posed to international peace and security.

Although the US says it favours sanctions not military action, Moscow distrusts Washington which used a similar resolution to lead Nato intervention in the Libyan conflict. During talks in Moscow with Mr Annan, Russian president Vladimir Putin pledged to “do everything” to support the Annan peace plan but would not back the western draft. Mr Annan, who warned the “crisis is in a key turning point”, said he hoped discussions would continue and send a message to Syria. Ahead of this encounter, Moscow declared its intention to veto the resolution. Russia has circulated its own draft extending the mandate of the monitors.

In spite of a last-minute appeal from UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, China is likely to support Russia in the vote, scheduled for today. China’s People’s Daily editorialised, “The life of Syria’s current political leadership can only be determined by the Syrian people.”