Battle to ‘liberate’ Syrian capital has begun: rebels
Rebels declared the battle to “liberate” Damascus has begun as heavy fighting raged across the city yesterday and Russia said an agreement is possible for a UN resolution on the Syria crisis.
The proclamation by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) came as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said the 16-month crisis now increasingly described as a civil war was at a “critical time”.
Heavy machinegun fire was reported in Damascus’s Sabaa Bahrat Square, where President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has staged rallies to counter anti-regime protests that erupted in March 2011.
Tanks and helicopter gunships were deployed in the Qaboon neighbourhood, while battles were fought in Al-Midan and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Eight people, all but one civilians, were killed in Damascus yesterday, the Britain-based watchdog said. As the clashes inched closer to the regime’s nerve centre, FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine said “victory is nigh” and that the fight would go on until all Damascus was conquered.
“We have transferred the battle from Damascus province to the capital. We have a clear plan to control the whole of Damascus. We only have light weapons, but it’s enough.”
“Expect surprises,” Saadeddine added.
Fighting between Assad’s forces and the FSA has raged in Damascus since Sunday, with the rebels announcing a full-scale offensive dubbed “the Damascus volcano and earthquakes of Syria.”An activist in the capital told AFP that FSA fighters had blocked an attempt by troops to storm Qaboon. “The army tried to raid the neighbourhood yesterday but the FSA stopped them,” said the activist, who calls himself Omar. Backed by tanks and helicopter gunships, the army pounded the neighbourhood with mortar and heavy machinegun fire, he said.
An activist who said he was in Al-Midan said the army was shelling the neighbourhood “hysterically”.
“The collapsing regime has gone mad,” the man calling himself Abu Musab said via Skype.
“The army has tried to storm the district, but the Free Syrian Army has stopped them. So they have intensified their shelling. They are shelling everything,” he said, adding that Ghazwat Badr mosque had been destroyed. AFP could not independently verify the accounts.
Witnesses also reported heavy machinegun fire in Sabaa Bahrat Square in central Damascus, as well as in Baghdad Street nearby.
The regime vowed on Monday not to surrender the capital.
“You will never get Damascus,” read the headline in Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime. In that context, the Israeli army’s intelligence chief said Assad has moved troops from the Golan Heights next to Israel towards Damascus and other internal conflict zones.
“Assad has removed many of his forces that were in the Golan Heights to the areas of conflict,” Major General Aviv Kochavi told MPs.
“He’s not afraid of Israel at this point, but mainly wants to augment his forces around Damascus,” Kochavi said, while saying the “probability of a conflict between Israel and Syria as a last resort for Assad is low”.
He also said that “radical Islam” was gaining ground and that Syria was undergoing a process of “Iraqisation,” with militant and tribal factions controlling different areas.
In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Annan he would “do everything” to support the former UN chief’s plan to end the conflict.
“We will do everything that depends on us to support your efforts,” Putin told Annan at the Kremlin.
Annan told Putin “the Syrian crisis is at a critical time” before their meeting was closed to the media.
Speaking to reporters later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he saw “no reason why we cannot also agree at the UN Security Council. We are ready for this.”
Annan added: “The Council, I expect, will be sending out a message that the killings must stop and that the situation on the ground is unacceptable.”
Annan’s Moscow meetings came one day before Western powers plan to hold a vote on a UN resolution that threatens sanctions against the Damascus regime.
The council must also vote to decide on renewing the 300-strong UN Supervision Mission in Syria, deployed to monitor an April 12 ceasefire Assad agreed with Annan.
While Annan is in Moscow, UN chief Ban Ki-moon was due in Beijing yesterday, also on a mission to get support for tougher action on Syria.