Syrian troops repel rebel attack on jail


Fri, May 17, 2013 - Page 1

Syrian rebels withdrew from a prison in the northern city of Aleppo yesterday after heavy fighting with government troops, an activist group said, as it more than doubled its tally of deaths from sectarian killings in a coastal city earlier this month.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights raised the death toll from the May 3 sectarian killings in the coastal city of Banias to 145 from 62. Activists said at the time that troops and pro-government gunmen stormed the predominantly Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Ras Nabeh and killed dozens.

The violence in the coastal region underscored the sectarian nature of the two-year conflict, which has killed tens of thousands and forced more than a million Syrians to flee to neighboring countries.

The Sunni majority forms the backbone of the rebellion, while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, anchors the regime’s security services and the military’s officer corps. Other minorities, such as Christians, largely support al-Assad or stand on the sidelines, worried that the regime’s fall would bring about a more Islamist rule.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said some of the people who have been missing in Banias have turned out to be dead. He said the 145 include 34 children and 40 women.

“This is one of the ugliest massacres that took place in Syria,” said Abdul-Rahman, adding that all the 145 killed were civilians. “What happened in Banias was sectarian cleansing.”

The killings in Banias came a day after regime troops and gunmen from nearby Alawite areas allegedly beat, stabbed and shot at least 50 people in the nearby Sunni Muslim village of Bayda.

Meanwhile, Iran yesterday said a UN General Assembly vote condemning al-Assad’s regime over its “escalation” of the civil war would embolden “extremist groups.”

“Not only will [the UN condemnation] not help the problem there, but it will also escalate the actions and crimes of extremist groups in Syria,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araqchi said in a statement carried by the Mehr news agency.

The UN resolution on Wednesday was adopted by 107 countries in the 193-member assembly, down from 133 when the last vote was held in August last year.

Araqchi questioned the timing of the vote, saying the resolution “is against international efforts to find a peaceful solution” to the crisis.

Iran, al-Assad’s main regional ally, regards many Syrian opposition groups as “terrorists,” but it urges talks to form a national reconciliation committee.

Russia, another ally of the al-Assad regime, fiercely opposed the resolution, labeling it a potential obstacle to peace negotiations expected to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, next month.