Middle East

Syria rebels claim MiG shot down, Egypt causes storm

DAMASCUS: Rebels said they shot down a MiG warplane on Thursday as violence whipped across Syria ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the country and along its borders.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, meanwhile, caused a storm with a speech at a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, slamming the Damascus regime as "oppressive" and urging support for the opposition.

"I can confirm that a MiG was shot down this morning by our men using automatic weapons, shortly after taking off from Abu Zohur military airport in Idlib province," the rebel Free Syrian Army chief for the northern province, Colonel Afif Mahmoud Suleiman, told AFP.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces retaliated by shelling the area, and that eight children and nine women were among at least 20 people killed.

"The two pilots who parachuted from the plane were captured," Suleiman said, adding that 11 MiGs at the airport were also destroyed and that soldiers manning the air base either fled or were killed.

The rebels are now in "full control" of the Abu Zohur base, he said. His claims could not be immediately verified.

"We warn the regime in the coming days that it will face more attacks... we will respond to massacres with a spectacular military response," he said.

On August 13, rebels claimed they downed of a Russian-made MiG in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, and on Monday rebels said they had shot down a helicopter during fierce fighting in the Damascus suburb of Qaboon.

The Syrian regime acknowledged the first two aircraft crashes but put them down to mechanical failures. It has not yet commented on the latest claim.

The Syrian Observatory had earlier said rebels took over parts of a military airport in Idlib overnight, and that explosions could be heard from inside the facility.

The violence came as a war of words erupted between Egypt's Morsi and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in the presence of NAM leaders after their summit began in Iran's capital.

"The revolution in Egypt is the cornerstone for the Arab Spring, which started days after Tunisia and then it was followed by Libya and Yemen and now the revolution in Syria against its oppressive regime," Morsi said in his address.

"Our solidarity with the struggle of Syrians against an oppressive regime that has lost its legitimacy is an ethical duty, and a political and strategic necessity," he added.

With his delegation walking out in protest, Muallem accused Morsi of using his speech to incite further bloodshed in Syria.

'Interference in Syrian affairs'

The speech amounted to "interference in Syria's internal affairs and... incites continued bloodshed in Syria," he said, quoted from Tehran on Syrian state television.

On the sidelines of the summit, Morsi held talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on bilateral and regional issues including Syria, an official said.

"They emphasised the need to solve the Syria crisis via diplomacy and to prevent foreign intervention," Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian told Iran's Arabic-language broadcaster Al-Alam.

Thursday's UN Security Council meeting has been called by France and is aimed at "appealing to world conscience and for mobilisation" in the face of the Syrian humanitarian drama, a diplomat said in New York.

Turkey has floated the idea of creating buffer zones within Syria to receive those displaced by the conflict so they do not flood across the borders into neighbouring countries.

Assad, however, scoffed at the idea in an interview on Wednesday with the pro-regime Addounia TV channel.

"Talk of buffer zones firstly is not on the table and secondly it is an unrealistic idea by hostile countries and the enemies of Syria," the embattled leader said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will preside over the UN meeting as France heads the Council in August, said on Wednesday the issue of buffer zones would be brought up, even if "it is very complicated."

Syria's neighbours Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq were all to send ministers to the meeting.

On the warfront, fierce clashes broke out near a military security headquarters in Deir Ezzor city in eastern Syria, while in the northern city of Aleppo, the contested districts of Salaheddin, Saif al-Dawla and Sukari again saw fierce fighting, the Observatory said.

In Damascus, gunfire reverberated across Qaboon, according to the Syrian Revolution General Council, a network of local activists.

Another activist network, the Local Coordination Committees, said fighting also erupted in the capital's southern Tadamun district.

The Britain-based Observatory reported a total of 128 people -- 77 civilians, 19 rebels and 32 soldiers -- killed nationwide on Wednesday, including at least 44 civilians in Damascus.

In a preliminary toll issued before the Abu Zohur shelling, it said at least eight people were killed on Thursday.

The director of the capital's Tishrin military hospital, meanwhile, said more than 8,000 members of the security forces have been killed since the uprising against Assad's rule broke out in March 2011.

"I estimate that at least 8,000 soldiers and members of the security forces have been killed since the beginning of the crisis," the director, a doctor who also holds the rank of general, told AFP, on condition of not being named.

"Every day, we receive an average of 15 to 20 bodies of soldiers and members of security forces, with the numbers increasing since the beginning of the year."

The Observatory, which says more than 25,000 people have been killed in the 17-month-old uprising, puts the figure of soldiers and members of the security forces killed at nearly 6,500.





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