BEIRUT/CAIRO: Some 50 people were killed when a Syrian airstrike hit a fuel station in the northern province of Raqqa Thursday, activists said, one of the single bloodiest incidents in a day that saw well over 100 Syrians killed across the country.
With fierce fighting raging in the capital Damascus, Western diplomats met under the “Friends of Syria” group at The Hague to try to hatch together a plan to use financial pressures to try to choke the embattled Syrian regime.
President Bashar Assad, meanwhile, vowed to crush the rebel fighters, insisting the “door to dialogue remains open.”
In comments to the Egyptian weekly magazine Al-Ahram al-Araby, Assad said “the armed groups exercise terrorism against the state ... they will not be victorious in the end.”
Speaking from his office in al-Rawda District in Damascus, Assad hit out at Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, accusing them of arming rebel groups, adding that “change cannot be achieved through foreign intervention.”
“Dialogue with the opposition is the only way to handle the crisis,” he said, insisting that his government is committed to reforms and a battle against corruption.
“I’m not saying we’re done. We know there have been mistakes and there is still corruption we are battling,” he told the magazine.
Fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels has made a political solution to the crisis appear out of reach. U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned late Tuesday that both sides appear intent on fighting to the bitter end of what increasingly looks like an unwinnable war.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, Thursday updated the death toll for the 18-month uprising to over 29,000, the vast majority of them civilians.
Some 50 people were killed and dozens wounded in the massive explosion at the fuel station in the northeastern village of Ain Issa, in Raqqa, the Observatory reported. Activists said it was caused by an airstrike.
“At least 30 people were killed and 83 were injured, although unconfirmed sources say the number of dead was actually more than 50,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Activists said the petrol station was hit by a warplane.
“The petrol station is the only one that is still open to customers in the area, and it was packed,” a media activist who identified himself as Abu Muawiya told AFP via Skype. “It was hit by a fighter jet.
“The only reason why it would strike the petrol station with a jet is to kill the highest number of people possible,” he charged. It was impossible to verify the claim.
A video published by activists, said to be from Raqqa, showed black clouds of smoke rising from the wreckage of the petrol station as bewildered residents examined the scene following the attack by a Syrian air force jet.
Government forces also shelled rebels near a border crossing with Turkey some 30 km away on the northern fringes of Raqqa, a day after it was seized by the insurgents.
A Reuters witness on the Turkish side of the border heard heavy gunfire and explosions close to the Tel Abyad border post, where an opposition flag still fluttered. Residents rushed toward the border as the gunfire intensified.
It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the activists’ videos.
President Assad has used helicopters and fighter jets to fire at and bomb parts of the country where insurgents have been operating, including residential districts of the capital and Syria’s main cities.
Assad’s forces have targeted petrol stations in rural towns and villages and along main roads to deprive rebels of fuel. Civilians have set up smaller, discreet fuel outlets.
Earlier Thursday, Syria’s information ministry said that a Syrian military helicopter that crashed near the capital had clipped the tail of a Syrian Arab Airlines passenger plane, but the 200 people on board escaped unharmed.
“The helicopter struck the tail of the plane ... The control tower at Damascus airport confirmed that the plane landed safely at Damascus airport and all 200 passengers are in good health,” a statement published on the state news channel Syria TV said.
The Observatory reported the helicopter was downed by rebels following a series of explosions in Douma, northeast of Damascus.
Elsewhere in the capital, security forces surrounded and raided the southern districts, arresting more than 100 people. Activists said several others were shot dead.
An opposition activist called Abu Salam, who lives in the Yarmouk camp, where rebels have been hiding out in recent days, told Reuters that many residents were trapped.
He said tanks and soldiers had sealed all the entrances and hundreds of soldiers were searching the area on foot and on trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns.
“We are hiding in our homes. I am afraid to leave the house so I am sitting here waiting to see if they reach my street, if I will be arrested or shot dead,” he said, adding that at least three people, two men and a young women, were shot dead when soldiers saw them running out of a park Thursday morning.
He said another five rebels found hiding were executed.
A Damascus-based activist who identified herself as Alexia said executions were rife in areas reclaimed by the army.
“People keep discovering bodies dumped on the streets.”
The exiled Syrian National Council opposition umbrella group said a large swathe of south Damascus had been turned into “a disaster area.”
In Aleppo where Assad is waging a major battle against rebels, government forces bombarded the districts of Hanano, Inzarat, Sakhur, Shaar and Salhin along with Al-Bab and Bazaa in the Aleppo province.
Shelling and clashes were also reported in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor, Idlib in the northwest, and Homs and Hama in the center.
In the Netherlands, diplomats from over 60 nations and the Arab League meeting for the “Friends of Syria” working group, urged the U.N. Security Council to choke off resources to Assad’s regime.
The group on sanctions called on the world and “particularly members of the U.N. Security Council” to implement measures to deny Damascus access to resources “for its campaign against its own people.”
The group has already held three meetings at ministerial level in Tunis, Istanbul and Paris. Another is planned in Morocco in October and another later in Italy.