Syrian army intensifies its bloody crackdown

Troops and tanks swept into a restive town near Damascus yesterday in an assault aimed at crushing opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, whose struggle for survival has dragged Syria into an increasingly bloody war.

Artillery and helicopters attacked the Sunni Muslim town of Daraya for 24 hours, killing 15 people and wounding 150, before soldiers moved in and raided houses, opposition sources said.

There was little resistance as Assad’s forces pushed toward the centre of Daraya, on the southwest edge of Damascus. Armed rebels had apparently already left, activists in Damascus said.

“They are using mortar bombs to clear each sector. Then they enter it, while moving towards the centre,” said Abu Zeid, an activist speaking by phone from an area near Daraya.

Other activists said the army was also bombarding parts of the town from Qasioun, a mountain overlooking Damascus, and from a barracks near a hilltop presidential palace.

“For about an hour we heard explosions and gunfire,” opposition activist Samir al-Shami told Reuters from Damascus. “It is not as bad as yesterday yet but tensions are really high.”

Assad’s forces also raided the south-eastern Kafr Souseh area early yesterday and detained people, said another activist.

The military had driven insurgents from most of the areas they seized in the capital after a bomb killed four top security officials on Jul 18, but rebels have crept back, regrouping without taking on the army in pitched battles.

Punitive military raids and summary killings appear to be one response as Assad strives to keep control of Damascus and the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, opposition sources say.

YouTube footage showed a funeral in Daraya of a mother and five children from the al-Sheikh family. Activists said the victims were killed by shellfire in the town after fleeing this week’s military offensive on the Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya.

The bodies were wrapped in white shrouds, the children’s faces exposed.

Tanks and troops attacked the south-western Damascus suburb of Mouadamiya on Monday and Tuesday, killing 86 people, half of them in cold blood, according to Assad’s opponents.

It was hard to verify the assertion due to state curbs on independent media. Syrian leaders say they are fighting “armed terrorists” backed by Western and Gulf Arab nations out to topple Assad for his resistance to Israel and the US.

International diplomacy has failed to brake the conflict in Syria, which the UN says has cost more than 18,000 lives since a popular uprising erupted in Mar 2011.

More than 60 were killed across Syria yesterday according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The toll included 48 civilians. The British-based group said 129 civilians were among 200 people killed in Syria on Wednesday.

Outgoing UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan has blamed splits in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly blocked Western efforts to ramp up pressure on Assad, for the failure of his peace mission.

Babacar Gaye, the head of UN monitors sent to observe an abortive ceasefire declared on Apr 12, was expected to leave Damascus yesterday. The mission’s mandate has expired.

Annan’s successor, veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi, was flying to New York for consultations at the UN but it is unclear how he can break the deadlock


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