Ban condemns Syrian massacre


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was shocked by reports of a massacre in a town close to Syria's capital and condemned it as "an appalling and brutal crime" that should be independently investigated immediately, his
spokesman said today.

Syrian opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's army yesterday of massacring hundreds of people in the town of Daraya, which government forces recaptured from rebels.

"The secretary-general is certainly shocked by those reports and he strongly condemns this appalling and brutal crime," Mr Ban's spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "This needs to be investigated immediately, in an independent and impartial fashion.

"It underscores ... wherever there are atrocities, whoever is responsible needs to be held accountable and it underscores again the lack of protection for civilians that there is in Syria," he said.

He said the UN Office for the Commissioner for Human Rights was trying to gather information on the Daraya incident.

In Daraya, southwest of Damascus, some 320 bodies, including women and children, were found in houses and basements, according to activists who said most had been killed "execution-style" by troops in house-to-house raids.

Syria's official state news agency blamed the killings on the rebels.

"Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town," the agency reported.

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed in the 17-month conflict. It began as peaceful pro-democracy protests and has grown into a civil war, pitting a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against the ruling Assad family, who are members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Opposition activists say Syrian fighter plane attacks on eastern suburbs of Damascus killed at least 60 people today.

They said the aerial attacks targeted the neighbourhood of Zemalka and the more easterly suburb of Saqba where Free Syrian Army fighters had attacked and over-run several army roadblocks earlier in the day.

Both suburbs are poor and predominantly Sunni Muslim.

"The 60 casualties were recorded in Zemalka and there were many dead as well in Saqba but their numbers could not be ascertained," said Osama al-Dimashqi, an activist speaking from Zemalka and giving an alias for fear of reprisals.

"Most of those killed were civilians and the Free Syrian Army had attacked the roadblocks then left," he said.

Dimashqi said these were the first aerial attacks by fighter planes on Damascus.

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande today warned Dr Assad that any use of the country's chemical weapons would be a legitimate justification for a military intervention.

"With our partners we remain very vigilant regarding preventing the use of chemical weapons, which for the international community would be a legitimate reason for direct intervention," Mr Hollande said during an annual foreign policy speech to French ambassadors.

A Christian archbishop fled Syria after his offices were ransacked last week amid fighting between rebels and government forces in the country's biggest city Aleppo, Catholic news agency Fides said today.

The Melchite Greek Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, Jean-Clement Jeanbart, and a number of priests fled to Lebanon after the attack on Thursday, Mr Fides said.

The Melchite Greek Catholic Church is a community of Middle Eastern Christians who are in full communion with Rome.

Mr Fides said "unidentified groups who want to feed a religious war and drag the Syrian population into sectarian conflicts" attacked the Christian area in the old quarter of Aleppo.

A Byzantine Christian museum and an office of the Maronite Christian faith were also damaged, the report said.

There are several Christian groups in Syria, many of which have been in the region since pre-Islamic times.

Christians make up around 10 per cent of the population and many have remained loyal to Dr Assad fearing that the majority Sunni Muslims would trample on religious rights if they took power.

However some senior members of the opposition are also Christians.

Earlier, a military helicopter came down in flames in Damascus as Dr Assad's air force strafed and bombarded rebel-held districts in the capital and in Aleppo.

State television confirmed a helicopter had crashed in the Syrian capital but gave no details.

Opposition activists said rebels had shot it down. Video footage showed a crippled aircraft trailing fire and crashing into a built-up area, sending up a pillar of oily black smoke.

"It was flying over the eastern part of the city and firing all morning," an activist calling himself Abu Bakr told Reuters from near where the helicopter came down in the suburb of Qaboun. "The rebels had been trying to hit for about an hour," he said.

"Finally they did."

Footage released by opposition campaigners showed 20 bodies on the floor of a mosque in the adjacent neighbourhood of Zamalka, including three children.

Activists said the rest of the casualties were reported killed in helicopter and mortar bombardment on residential areas in the suburbs of Irbin, Harasta, Kfar Batna and Muleiha, in the east and northeastern outskirts of the capital.

Video footage carried the sound of people celebrating the helicopter's dive with shouts of "Allahu akbar (God is great)".

Although rebel commanders have asked foreign allies for anti-aircraft missiles, Western nations are unwilling to supply such weapons for fear of them falling into hostile hands.

There was no indication fighters in Damascus had used any missiles.

Army helicopters had begun firing rockets and machineguns yesterday at Jobar, Zamalka and Irbin, working class Sunni Muslim neighbourhoods on the eastern outskirts of the city.

Rebels have launched attacks against Dr Assad's forces in and around Damascus in recent weeks, drawing a fierce response.


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