Assad praises army for fighting 'terrorist gangs'


WAR IN SYRIA:SYRIA’S GOVERNMENT used artillery and aircraft against targets in Aleppo yesterday as revenge killings by opposition forces underlined the brutality of the spreading conflict and as the president, Bashar al-Assad, praised his army for facing what he called “criminal terrorist gangs”.

Helicopters were seen operating above the northern city as Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters claimed to have captured several of its key neighbourhoods.

Fighting also erupted between rebels and government forces near two Christian areas of the capital for the first time since the uprising began 17 months ago. It has since claimed an estimated 20,000 lives.

President Assad’s message – which marked Syrian armed forces day – was clearly intended as a morale-booster to troops overstretched by the prolonged uprising that encompasses large areas of the country.

“The fate of our people and our nation, past, present and future, depends on this battle,” the president said in his first statement since four of his senior security officials were assassinated in a bomb blast two weeks ago.

“My trust in you is great, and the trust of our people in you that you are the defender of its just causes,” he was quoted as saying by the state news agency.

In a vivid illustration of the cruelty of the war, video footage from Aleppo showed the apparent killing of four Assad loyalists while the corpses of government militiamen in a nearby police station suggested rebels were using the same brutal tactics for which the Syrian leader’s own forces have been condemned.

A clip posted on YouTube shows four militiamen being led into a crowded yard before a prolonged burst of gunfire is unleashed as people chant: “Allahu Akbar.”

In the video, which could not be independently confirmed, the men are identified as members of the state-run shabiha militia from the city’s Berri family. Two of them were in their underwear as they were led down a flight of stairs and lined up in front of a wall. Gunmen firing with semi-automatic rifles continued shooting after their victims had fallen to the ground, their bodies piled one on top of another.

Bashir al-Haji, spokesman for the FSA’s Tawhid (“Unity”) Brigade, said the shootings were in retaliation for an incident on Tuesday when 15 FSA people were killed by Berri shabiha, despite a truce that was supposed to be in force in that part of Aleppo.

In a separate development, the FSA denied a report that it had acquired shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles that could be used to shoot down government aircraft. The US government has said it was not supplying lethal weapons to Syrian rebels but Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been pressing to do so and have the cash to buy them on the international black market.

The rebels have threatened to turn Aleppo into the “grave” of the Assad government. Thousands of residents have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the risk of injury or death.

The balance of forces is still hugely in favour of the government but there are signs that the morale of the armed anti-Assad opposition is improving.

FSA leaders are careful not to reveal their strategy but Mustafa al-Sheikh, a former army general who now heads the FSA’s supreme military council, said from the Syria-Turkey border area: “The fighting is like hit-and-run. We are not aiming to get control of any city in Syria, but we want to exhaust the regime and speed up its collapse.”

– (Guardian service)