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Air strike kills dozens of Syrians in bread line
By HERB KEINON, ARIEL BEN SOLOMON AND REUTERS
12/24/2012
Activists say large crowd was queuing for bread, video shows dozens of dead bodies; special envoy arrives for new talks.
 
Dozens of people were killed and many more wounded in a Syrian government air strike that hit a bakery where a crowd was lining up for bread on Sunday, activists said.

If confirmed, the attack in the central Syrian town of Halfaya, which was seized by rebels last week, would be one of the deadliest air strikes in Syria’s civil war.



Videos uploaded by activists showed dozens of bloodstained corpses lying amid rubble and shrapnel. An adolescent boy with both his feet blown off lay flailing in the middle of a road.

“When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground. There were women and children,” said Samer al- Hamawi, an activist in the town. “There are also dozens of wounded people.”

Residents of Halfaya told Reuters they estimated 90 dead.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group with a network of activists across Syria, said that 60 people were killed.

“The number is likely to rise because there are dozens of wounded being treated in the area and nearby hospitals, among them 50 in critical condition,” it said.

Activists say more than 44,000 people have been killed in the 21 months since protests erupted against President Bashar Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.

Hamawi, who witnessed the air strike, said more than 1,000 people had been queuing at the bakery. Shortages of fuel and flour have made bread production erratic across the country, and people often wait hours to buy loaves.

“We hadn’t received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children,” Hamawi said. “I still don’t know yet if my relatives are among the dead.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned the Assad government’s air strikes on bakeries earlier this year, arguing that in some incidents the Syrian military was not using enough precision to target rebel sites, and in other instances it may have intentionally hit civilians.

In videos from the attack site, women and children cried and screamed as men rushed with motorbikes and vans to carry away victims.

There was no independent media access to the scene, as the government restricts press access in Syria.

In one video, the cameraman could be heard sobbing as he filmed.

“God is great, God is great. It was a war plane, a war plane,” he cried.

Israel, in cooperation with the US and others in the international community, is meanwhile preparing for the possibility of far-reaching changes in the Syrian regime, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Sunday.

The prime minister, speaking at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting, said those changes could have “implications” for the “sensitive weapons systems there.” Israel has in recent weeks expressed its serious concern about how changes in Syria will impact upon Damascus’s huge stockpile of chemical weapons, and how these weapons could become a part of the Syrian crisis.

Netanyahu told the cabinet there were “dramatic developments” in Syria now “about every day.”

Israel has increasingly been relaying the message to all actors in Syria that the fate of the chemical weapons is a “very sensitive issue” not only for Israel, but for the entire international community.

Jerusalem is concerned that either Hezbollah or some other terrorist organization could lay its hands on these weapons as Syria descends into further chaos and anarchy.

On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attempted to calm nerves regarding the chemical weapons stockpile, saying that “as of right now” the Syrian government “is doing all it can to safeguard these weapons.” He said Russia was “following all leads concerning chemical weapons.”

In addition, Lavrov stated that Russia had no intention of sheltering Assad if he were to flee from Syria, but added that “if there is anyone willing to provide him guarantees, they are welcome!” Earlier this month, a few Western countries expressed concern that the Assad’s beleaguered regime might be preparing the use of chemical weapons to fight the rebels.

Last week, reflecting Israel’s worries, Netanyahu told visiting Texas senatorelect Ted Cruz that Israel was very closely consulting and coordinating with the US regarding the possibility of the use of these weapons.

On Sunday, Al-Manar, a Lebanese website affiliated with Iranian-backed Hezbollah, quoted the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast, in what could be perceived as a threat to the West, as saying that “a military solution is not an appropriate settlement for Syria” and that “if the Syrian crisis intensifies and the Western countries interfere, the conflict would not be confined to Syria.”

And as if to counter the chemical weapons reports referring to Assad’s forces, Iranian Press TV reported that Syria’s rebels were using chemical weapons against the army.

Meanwhile, Amos Gilad, the director of the Defense Ministry’s diplomatic and security bureau, said on Army Radio Sunday that “at the moment” the chemical weapons in Syria “are under control.”

Gilad went on to warn that if Assad does leave Syria, as some have speculated, there “could be chaos” because “in the Middle East, you never know who will fill the power vacuum.”

In defiant remarks, Syrian Information Minister Umran Ahid al-Za’bi said rebels and their foreign allies should “forget” trying to topple Assad.

He appeared to move away from the conciliatory tone of the Syrian vice president, who said last week that neither side could win the war and called for a national unity government.

“These military efforts to try to topple the government, of getting rid of the president, of occupying the capital....

Forget about this,” al-Za’bi told a news conference in Damascus.

“I have general advice to those political powers that reject dialogue: Time is getting short. Hurry and move on to working on a political solution.”

Amid the latest carnage in Syria, United Nations-backed crisis mediator Lakhdar Brahimi arrived for more talks in the country. He had to drive from neighboring Lebanon because fighting around Damascus International Airport has effectively shut it down.

The uprising has grown into civil war, with death tolls regularly topping 100 people a day as the army hits back at rebels who have made a string of advances across the country, including around the capital. According to the Observatory, more than 180 Syrians, civilians and fighters, died on Sunday.

Brahimi, who replaced Kofi Annan after the former UN chief failed to get Assad and world powers to agree on a way to end the conflict, was expected to meet the president on Monday.

Sunday’s attack on the bakery comes nearly a week after another major attack that took place at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, when a fighter jet bombed a mosque, killing 25. Around 100,000 Palestinians have reportedly fled the camp with some crossing into neighboring countries.

Israel has found itself allied with the Western-backed Arab states against the Iran-Syria axis. This was illustrated by a strongly worded editorial by Tariq Alhomayed in Al-sharq Al-awsat, who sarcastically asked why those who claim to be the foremost defenders of the Palestinian cause [Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria] are the ones “bombing the Palestinians today with warplanes.” He goes on to claim their hypocrisy stating, “Yet we do not see Hassan Nasrallah coming out publicly to warn Assad against targeting the Palestinians, nor do we see Iranian leaders coming out to say anything, so is spilling the blood of the Palestinians halal [religiously permissible] for Assad and only haram [religiously impermissible] for Israel?”

As if to push back against this criticism, Iran announced on Saturday that it was going to send humanitarian aid to Syria’s Palestinians.
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