Army targets rebel enclaves in Damascus raids


SYRIAN GOVERNMENT forces went on the offensive yesterday following the rebel bombing that killed three members of president Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle.

Helicopters fired on rebel positions in outlying suburbs of the capital, Damascus, and residents of inner city districts where rebels had established a presence were warned to flee before the army cleared the areas.

Civilians from Midan, a main focus of clashes over the past five days, took refuge in quiet areas of the capital, while Palestinians from the refugee camps on the periphery, which had been infiltrated by rebels, moved to adjacent neighbourhoods.

Syrian state television warned that rebels wearing the uniforms of elite Republican Guards were planning to attack people. But activists countered by claiming that genuine Republican guardsmen were in the Midan district and were planning a massacre.

Rebels reportedly attacked the main police headquarters for the Damascus province, located in an old area, while explosions were said to have taken place in the northeastern and southern districts. Troops supported by armour moved into the Qaboon district, said the opposition Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights. “This is the first time that tanks enter a Damascus district.”

A security source was quoted as saying the army intended to “cleanse Damascus of terrorists by the time [the Muslim fasting month of] Ramadan begins” today.

Due to Wednesday’s attack, the military has decided to use all the weapons in its possession to “finish off the terrorists”, said the source.

Streets in the city centre were empty and many shops were shuttered. Checkpoints were set up on roads leading to troubled areas and families were stocking up on supplies, fearing the disruption of normal life. Queues were long at bakeries, petrol was scarce and garbage collectors did not make their rounds.

As Syrians hurried to the country’s main border crossing with Lebanon, the Jordanian airline suspended flights from Amman to Damascus and Aleppo, cutting a vital air connection and leaving many Syrians feeling trapped.

Sweden, Denmark and Austria withdrew diplomats temporarily after the blast that killed defence minister Gen Daoud Rajha; President Assad’s brother-in-law Gen Assef Shawkat; and assistant to the vice-president Hassan Turkmani.

Mr Assad, who had made no comment on or appearance since the bombing, was shown on television swearing in new defence minister Fahed Jassen al-Freij at the presidential palace in Damascus.

As Maj-Gen Robert Mood, chief of the UN monitoring mission, left Syria and his position of command, he said: “We are not on track for peace in Syria and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days are testimony to that.”

He called on the parties to “end the bloodshed . . . and recommit to a peaceful solution to this conflict” and urged the UN Security Council to exert “effective leadership” by adopting a “plan that meets the aspirations of the Syrian people and that is accepted by the parties. Government and opposition must be willing to make the necessary concessions and sit at the negotiating table.”

If this happens, the UN mission “can contribute to improving the situation on the ground”, he asserted.