Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Syrian rebels bomb army command in Damascus
By Samia Nakhoul and Oliver Holmes
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels bombed a military complex in Damascus on Wednesday, striking at the heart of President Bashar al-Assad's power and igniting a fire which gutted the army command headquarters.
The Free Syrian Army, the main rebel force fighting to overthrow Assad, claimed responsibility for the attack in central Damascus which it said killed dozens of people.
An armed forces statement said no military leaders were hurt and only a number of guards were wounded in the blasts, which shook the whole city at around 7 a.m. (5:00 a.m. British time) before regular working hours.
It was the biggest attack in Damascus since July 18 when a blast killed several senior security officials, including Assad's brother-in-law, the defence minister and a general.
Wednesday's attack took place as international leaders met at the United Nations, where deadlock between world powers over Syria has blocked any global response to the conflict which activists say has killed 27,000 people, forced a quarter of a million refugees to flee the country and left 2.5 million people in need of help.
The uprising, which erupted in March last year as mainly peaceful protests for reform, has become an armed insurgency pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, from the Alawite faith which is close to Shi'ite Islam.
Shi'ite Iran supports Assad while regional Sunni powers have backed the rebels. One Sunni leader, the Emir of Qatar, told the United Nations that Arab countries should intervene "to stop the bloodshed", but few Arab states are likely to back his call.
U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi said Syria's crisis was "extremely bad and getting worse."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence through a network of activists in the country, said 240 people were killed in Syria on Tuesday. Most were civilians but the death toll included 54 members of Assad's security forces.
FLAMES ENGULF MILITARY BUILDING
Internet footage of Wednesday's fire at the General Staff Command Building showed flames engulfing its upper floors.
"The attack in Damascus once again proves that, with sufficient planning and co-ordination, the opposition appears to retain the ability to strike at the heart of regime," said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's.
"This is despite the fact that the FSA has appeared in recent weeks to be under pressure as a result of the fighting in Aleppo and other parts of the country."
The main gate of the military complex was blackened from the fire while all the windows of the building were blown out. Glass shards littered nearby streets and a deep crater was gouged in the road, apparently formed when an explosive-laden car blew up.
Residents reported that gunfire rattled out around the district for at least two hours after the explosions. Roads in the area were blocked off as ambulances rushed to the scene.
"All our colleagues in the military leadership, the army staff command and the Defence Ministry are unhurt," Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Syrian Television.
He said security forces were chasing "armed terrorists" - a term the authorities use to refer to the insurgents.
"It's a terrorist act, close to an important site, that's true. But as usual they failed to achieve their goal," he said.
Activist Samir al-Shami said the main explosions were caused by a suicide car bombing and second car loaded with explosives on the perimeter of the complex.
"Then the fighters went inside and clashed with security inside, while some of the men started to torch the building," he said.
That appeared to tally with accounts from residents who heard gunfire and smaller blasts after the first explosions.
"The explosions were very loud. They shook the whole city and the windows of our house were shuddering," one resident reached by telephone said.
A reporter for al-Manar television, run by Assad's Lebanese ally Hezbollah, said he was in the building after the explosion and saw the bodies of three armed men, suggesting clashes between security forces and rebels at the site.
Another resident said: "I was woken up at four minutes to seven by the first loud explosion. Five or six minutes later there was a second."
"We're used to the sound of artillery but these were very big - bigger than usual."
A correspondent for Iran's English-language Press TV was shot dead by a rebel sniper and its Damascus bureau chief was wounded while they covered Wednesday's explosions, Press TV said.
Pro-Assad gunmen also killed at least 16 people in Damascus, the British-based Observatory said. It said three of those killed in the poor district of Barzeh, which is sympathetic to opposition fighters, were children and six were women.
With no foreseeable prospect of foreign intervention and diplomacy stuck, outgunned rebels have relied increasingly on attacks with homemade bombs, striving to level the playing field against an army using fighter jets, artillery and tanks.
At the annual U.N. General Assembly in New York, French President Francois Hollande sought to shake up international inertia over the crisis by calling for U.N. protection of rebel-held areas.
"The Syrian regime...has no future among us," Hollande said in a speech. "Without any delay, I call upon the United Nations to provide immediately to the Syrian people all the support it asks of us and to protect liberated zones."
Protection for "liberated" areas would require no-fly zones enforced by foreign aircraft, which could stop deadly air raids by Assad's forces on populated areas. But there is little chance of securing a Security Council mandate for such action given the opposition of veto-wielding members Russia and China.
The United States, European allies, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have sided with the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia and China have backed Assad, whose family and minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria for 42 years.
But Western powers have stopped short of supplying military aid to the rebels to an extent that could turn the tide of the conflict, in part out of fear of arming Islamist militants who have joined the anti-Assad revolt.
(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Rania El gamal and Sami Aboudi in Dubai; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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