Activists fear many deaths after six days of Damascus clashes

NO END IN SIGHT::One group put the death toll as high as 250, while another said 483 people had died as Syrian troops and Hezbollah militants attacked the city

Agencies, Beirut and DAMASCUS

Tue, Apr 23, 2013 - Page 6

Six days of clashes in two Damascus suburbs may have killed hundreds of people, a dramatic spike in the rising death toll in the Syrian civil war, activists said yesterday.

The reports came as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces pressed on with a major offensive in the suburbs against opposition fighters who have been closing in on parts of the Syrian capital, Damascus. To the north, regime troops surged around the contested town of Qusair in Syria’s Homs Province, near the frontier with Lebanon.

The precise number of those killed in the latest fighting in Jdaidet Artouz and Jdaidet al-Fadel suburbs could not be immediately confirmed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the number of the dead could be as high as 250. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman said the group has documented 80 names of those killed, but fears a much higher toll.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said the death toll was 483 and that most of the victims were killed in Jdaidet Artouz. State-run news agency SANA said Syrian troops “inflicted heavy losses” on the rebels in the suburbs.

Conflicting reports of death tolls are common in Syria’s crisis, especially in areas that are difficult to access because of the fighting.

Also yesterday, two bombings targeted an army checkpoint and a military post in a third Damascus suburb, Mleiha, killing eight soldiers there, the Observatory said.

Over the past two weeks, the Syrian military, supported by the Hezbollah-backed militia known as the Popular Committees, has pushed to regain control of the border area. The region is strategic because it links Damascus with the Mediterranean coastal enclave that is the heartland of al-Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The fighting around Qusair also points to the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict, which pits a government dominated by the Syrian president’s Alawite minority against a primarily Sunni Muslim rebellion, and underscores widely held fears that the civil war could drag in neighboring states.

The pro-government daily Al-Watan predicted that “the liberation” of the Qusair area will be completed within a “few days.”

The report claimed the army was making a “rapid” advance in the outskirts of Qusair, inflicting heavy losses on the rebels and forcing some to retreat toward Lebanon.

In Lebanon, there are deep divisions over the Syrian conflict, with Lebanese Sunnis mostly backing the opposition while Shiites support al-Assad. Lebanese fighters have also traveled to Syria to join either Sunni or Shiite groups.

Over the weekend, several rockets fell in the predominantly Shiite Lebanese towns and villages along the border and some Lebanese schools in the area remained closed for fear of more shelling.

Meanwhile, the EU is set to lift its oil embargo on Syria to provide more support to the forces fighting to oust al-Assad. Ferman Minister of Foreign Affairs Guido Westerwelle yesterday said the move aims at “granting stronger economic support for the opposition, for example through oil exports.’’

The decision would allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory and the import of production technology. It is the first easing of EU sanctions in two years as governments seek ways to help ease supply shortages in rebel-held areas.

Some EU members are also pushing to lift the bloc’s arms embargo against Syria, with a decision expected next month.

Russia yesterday warned the EU not to lift an arms embargo, with Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov saying that if the embargo is removed, “the international obligations of the EU countries, which prohibit supplies of arms and ammunition to non-government actors, are not going anywhere.”