BEIRUT: The Syrian government evacuated some 5,000 people Sunday from an embattled industrial town near Damascus where Al-Qaeda-linked rebels have been battling regime troops for over two weeks, the state news agency said.
In the rebel-held neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, meanwhile, the government maintained a ferocious air assault that activists say has killed at least 517 people since Dec. 15,.
The opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a string of regime aerial attacks on Aleppo and its countryside using crude “barrel bombs,” which cause massive damage upon impact, had killed 151 children and 46 women.
At least 46 opposition fighters were also killed, but the majority of the dead were civilians.
Helicopters Saturday dropped the TNT-packed barrels on a vegetable market and next to a hospital in the city of Aleppo, killing at least 25 civilians, including children.
The Syrian government hasn’t commented on the campaign.
In the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, the evacuation was negotiated after opposition fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front, swept into the city earlier this month.
Social Affairs Minister Kinda Shammat said more than 5,000 people were evacuated from the town. In a statement carried by the SANA state news agency, Shammat said the people have been moved to a safe place, and the ministry has established operation rescue rooms to offer aid and support.
In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, the Observatory said, clashes and government shelling near the city’s military airport claimed at least 19 lives. Both Islamist militias and the mainstream Free Syrian Army have announced a campaign to take the facility from regime troops.
The rebels said they seized the nearby village of Jafra, and the Observatory said there were reports that they had executed two men for “collaboration.”
The campaigns come in the run-up to the Geneva II peace conference, scheduled to start Jan. 22 in Switzerland. Some observers say the Aleppo assault fits into Assad’s apparent strategy of trying to expose the opposition’s weakness to strengthen his own hand ahead of the negotiations.
The opposition is divided on attendance at talks, insisting Assad’s departure must be on the agenda and that Iran, which is supporting the Syrian regime militarily and financially, should not attend.The regime says Assad’s departure is not up for discussion and Syria’s foreign minister said his country was committed to Iran’s attendance.
“Syria is committed to Iran joining the peace conference,” SANA quoted Walid al-Moallem as saying at a media forum.
“It is illogical that the United States or the so-called opposition exclude this country from the conference for political reasons.”
Iran does not figure on a list named by global peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for the Jan. 22 conference. Saudi Arabia, a main backer of the rebels battling Assad’s forces, is among the 26 countries invited to the talks.