Syrian rebels clashed with forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in southwest Damascus yesterday, forcing the closure of the main highway to the southern town of Deraa, activists said.
The fighting came as UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos visited Syria ahead of a UN aid conference in Kuwait on Wednesday, which aims to raise US$1.5 billion for millions of people made homeless, hungry and vulnerable by the 22-month-old conflict.
The UN says 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which started with mainly peaceful protests but spiraled into a civil war in which the mainly Sunni rebels have challenged al-Assad’s control of all Syria’s main cities.
In Damascus, the two sides fought around a railway station in the southwestern district of Qadam.
Footage posted on the Internet showed what activists said was a rebel attack on the station. One clip showed plain-clothed gunmen taking cover as gunfire could be heard. Another showed gunmen inspecting buildings by the track after what the narrator describes as the “liberation” of the station.
Another video showed black smoke billowing above concrete buildings, the result of what activists said was an air strike by al-Assad’s air force near the railway terminal.
Syrian media did not comment on the fighting around Qadam and restrictions on independent media make it difficult to verify reports from activists.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition group that monitors the violence in Syria, said jets and army artillery also struck targets in rebel strongholds to the east and south of the capital after fierce clashes there.
Amo did not speak to reporters before heading for talks at the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
On Wednesday last week, Amos said Syrians were “paying a terrible price” for the failure of world powers to resolve the conflict, pointing to 650,000 refugees who have fled the country and the millions affected inside Syria.
“Four million people need help, 2 million are internally displaced and 400,000 out of 500,000 Palestinian refugees have been affected,” she told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The UN and aid groups inside Syria, including the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, could not keep pace with the rising number of people in need, she said.
“We must find ways to reach more people, especially in the areas we are still unable to get to, and where there is ongoing fighting,” she said.
Last month the UN withdrew 25 of its 100 foreign aid workers from Syria as fighting intensified around Damascus, but Amos said the organization remained committed to maintaining aid operations.
Most of the money from the Kuwait pledging conference will go to support neighboring countries hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, while US$519 million is earmarked for aid inside Syria.
Meanwhile, NATO said one of six batteries of Patriot missiles deployed in Turkey to protect against a spillover of the conflict went into operation on Saturday.
The battery, provided by The Netherlands, would “help to protect the [southern] city and people of Adana against missile threats,” it said, adding the other five batteries should be ready in the coming days.
Ankara and NATO have stressed the deployment is for defensive purposes only, while Damascus and its ally Moscow have criticized the measure. The US-made missiles can take out cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as aircraft.
In related news, a Syrian deputy prime minister said that Russia, one of al-Assad’s last supporters, is still supplying weapons to Damascus under contracts signed long ago.
“Syria has always received and today is still receiving [weapons from Russia]. We have agreements signed before the conflict and Russia is fulfilling its obligations,” Qadri Jamil told a Moscow radio station.