Regime launches offensive in Damascus


SYRIAN CLASHES:SYRIAN TROOPS yesterday launched an offensive in Damascus and the frontier provinces, reasserting control of the capital’s Midan district, as state television announced the death of a fourth member of President Bashar al- Assad’s crisis management team.

Gen Hisham Ikhtiar, head of national security, died of wounds suffered in Wednesday’s bombing that killed team chief Hassan Turkmani, defence minister Daoud Rajha and his deputy Assef Shawkat, President Assad’s brother-in- law.

The three men were given a joint state funeral attended by senior army officers. Deputy vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa and the newly appointed minister of defence Gen Fahed Jassem al-Freij laid wreaths on the coffins.

Hundreds of Christians took part in the burial service for Gen Rajha in a Greek Orthodox church, chanting “God, Syria, Bashar, nothing else,” as the flag-draped coffin was borne to the graveyard.

Gen Turkmani, a Sunni, and Mr Shawkat – an adherent of the Alawite offshoot religion of Shia Islam – were buried in accordance with the rites of their faiths.

Journalists who entered Midan described corpses and burnt-out vehicles in the streets. Rebels said they had staged a tactical with- drawal from the quarter.

Three people were killed by police fire at a funeral procession along Khaled ibn Walid street, which runs along the edge of Midan, when mourners took up anti-government slogans.

Syrian state television showed the bodies of 20 men with weapons at their sides after troops moved into the Qaboun district, the site of heavy fighting.

Activists said rebels were in control of traditional opposition stronghold towns of Barzeh, Tal and Dumair, north of the capital, and claimed the western capital district of Mezze had been fired upon with heavy machineguns and anti-aircraft guns. Clashes were reported in Kafr Sousseh, a district housing government offices.

Syrians living in contested districts have relocated to flats and hotels in quiet areas. Accommodation in some places has risen to $100 (€82) a night, the UN said.

Since so many shops and workshops have closed, there have been no power or water cuts, a source based in the heart of the city said. However, some banks are reported to have run out of cash.

In the north and east, rebels have captured several border posts. The Abu Kamal commercial crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim has been looted and torched by triumphant rebels but two other crossings into Iraq, including the main Walid post, remain under Syrian government control.

Iraq has closed the Abu Kamal crossing and dispatched two brigades supported by helicopters to the border area to prevent infiltration by Sunni fighters seeking to join the rebellion.

At the major Bab al-Hawa post on the Turkish frontier, 50km from Aleppo, 150 rebel gunmen sacked Turkish lorries delivering produce and merchandise to Syria and duty-free shops and set them alight. Portraits of President Assad were smashed.

Three dozen army tanks in the area reportedly made no move to recapture the terminal.

Fearful Syrians continued to stream westwards into Lebanon at the main border post at Masnaa, about 45 minutes drive from Damascus. Over the past year wealthy Syrians have bought up or rented flats in Beirut and the Lebanese mountains.

Thousands of Iraqi refugees have begun returning home after 21 Iraqis, including a family of seven and two journalists, were murdered. Threatening leaflets were also circulated in the Saida Zeinab district of Damascus, home to tens of thousands of Iraqi Shias who settled near the tomb of Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter. About 88,000 Iraqis are registered with the UN in Syria. The overall number was 1.5 million at its peak.

The Iraqi government has urged them to leave and put on eight flights to Damascus which were used to evacuate 750. Thousands of others have taken taxis and buses to the Walid terminal where the Iraqi government has provided buses to convey them to Baghdad. Two border crossings in the north also remained open with Syrian troops in charge.

The UN High Commission for Refugees said that over the past few days, 2,500 refugees had entered Jordan to the south.

According to the agency’s representative in Jordan, Andrew Harper, 35,000 have registered, although the government estimates that more than 140,000 have found refuge in the kingdom since the eruption of violence in Syria 16 months ago.


IT IS significant that both the Syrian regime and the rebels have staked their credibility on offensives during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which began yesterday.

The government tried and failed to rout the rebels from the capital ahead of Ramadan with the aim of ensuring that the holy month would be peaceful for Damascenes.

Ramadan is not simply a month of abstaining from food and drink by day but also a time of celebration and a time to visit friends and family by night. Trees along Damascus’ broad streets are decorated with fairy lights and restaurants stay open throughout the night serving special Ramadan fare.

The government would have liked to guarantee that citizens of the capital would be able to observe Ramadan in the traditional manner.

The rebels, however, sought to deny them this boon by launching co-ordinated attacks on sensitive quarters of the city and striking at the heart of the Assad regime with a bombing that killed four of its most senior figures.

The peace of Ramadan has been violated in order to undermine the ability of the regime to impose order.

Opposition groups may also try to repeat the protest demonstrations following daily communal prayers that characterised last year’s very violent Ramadan with the aim of stretching the security forces to breaking point.

If the plan put forward by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan had been implemented by both sides, the ceasefire had held, and talks had begun, Ramadan could have been a time of peace making and preparation for a period of transition from one-party to multi-party rule.

Ramadan has historically been a period when Arab tribes halted hostilities, as well as a time of fasting and feasting.