Syrian forces struck back against rebels yesterday with attack helicopters and shelling in Damascus, one day after an audacious rebel attack in the capital killed three leaders of the regime and left Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power increasingly tenuous.
The whereabouts of al-Assad, his wife and their three young children were not known. Although al-Assad does not appear in public frequently, his absence was notable following such a serious blow to his inner circle.
Thousands of Syrians streamed across the border into Lebanon, fleeing as fighting in the capital entered its fifth straight day, witnesses said.
Residents near the Masnaa crossing point — about 40km from Damascus — said hundreds of private cars, as well as taxis and buses, were ferrying people across.
Major General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of nearly 300 unarmed UN observers in Syria, condemned the violence and encouraged a diplomatic solution, which appears increasingly out of reach. He spoke just hours before a planned UN Security Council vote on whether to renew the mission’s mandate, which expires today, and impose new sanctions on the Damascus regime.
“It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria,” Mood said in Damascus.
The UN vote had been scheduled for Wednesday, but it was postponed after key Western nations and Russia failed to agree the text of a resolution aimed ending the escalating violence. Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, has stood by the Syrian regime and vowed to veto any measures that could lead to international military intervention.
In yesterday’s fighting in Damascus, government forces fired heavy machine guns and mortars in battles with rebels in a number of neighborhoods in the capital, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Adding to the confusion, Syria’s state-run TV warned citizens that gunmen were disguising themselves in military uniforms to carry out attacks.
“Gunmen are wearing Republican Guard uniforms in the neighborhoods of Tadamon, Midan, Qaa and Nahr Aisha, proving that they are planning attacks and crimes,” SANA said.
Wednesday’s rebel bomb attack on a high-level crisis meeting struck the harshest blow yet at the heart of al-Assad’s regime. The White House said the bombing showed al-Assad was “losing control” of Syria.
Syrian TV confirmed the deaths of Syrian Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, 65, a former army general and the most senior government official to be killed in the rebels’ battle to oust al-Assad; General Assef Shawkat, 62, the deputy defense minister who is married to al-Assad’s elder sister, Bushra; and Hassan Turkmani, 77, a former defense minister who died of his wounds in hospital.
Also wounded were Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed Shaar and Major General Hisham Ikhtiar, who heads the National Security Department. State TV said both were in stable condition.