Tanks shell Damascus suburbs after rebel attacks

Barrages hit capital after Free Syria Army renews attacks; Russia issues sharpest criticism of Syrian leadership.

By REUTERS
March 21, 2012 05:36
2 minute read.
Syrian tank in a Damascus suburb [file]

Syrian tank in a Damascus suburb 390 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout)

AMMAN - Two large suburbs of Damascus came under heavy tank bombardment on Wednesday following renewed Free Syrian Army attacks on forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, opposition activists said.

Artillery and anti-aircraft gun barrages hit the suburbs of Harasta and Irbin, retaken from rebels by Assad's forces two months ago, and army helicopters were heard flying over the area, on the eastern edge of the capital, the activists said.

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Assad's forces reasserted their control of Damascus suburbs in January after days of tank and artillery shelling that beat back rebels and lessened street protests against the 42-year rule of Assad and his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad.

The suburbs are a linked series of towns inhabited mostly by members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, who have grown increasingly resentful at the domination of the Assads, who belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Islam.

The Damascus assault and rebel fighters' flight on Tuesday from the eastern city of Deir al-Zor mark the latest setbacks for the armed opposition, which also faced accusations of torture and brutality from a leading human rights body.

But as Assad made advances on the ground, he appeared to suffer a setback on the diplomatic front, with key-ally Moscow adopting a new, sharper tone after months of publicly standing by his government.

"We believe the Syrian leadership reacted wrongly to the first appearance of peaceful protests and ... is making very many mistakes," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian radio station Kommersant-FM.

"This, unfortunately, has in many ways led the conflict to reach such a severe stage."

Lavrov also spoke of a "future transition" period for Syria but continued to reject calls from most Western and Arab states for Assad to resign, saying this was "unrealistic".

It was not immediately clear if the change in language would translate into a tangible difference in the way international powers, hitherto divided on Syria, might deal with the crisis.

"The change in the Russian position is one of tone, not of substance. Moscow still sees its support of Assad as part of a regional game, but it is losing the support of the Syrian people, which could backfire on it if the Syrian regime falls," said Najati Tayyara, a prominent Syrian opposition figure.

The uprising started with non-violent demonstrations last March, but the situation deteriorated rapidly amid a ferocious army crackdown and there are now daily clashes between rebels and security forces around the country.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed so far, but the toll is rising rapidly, with at least 31 men, women and children killed on Tuesday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

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