Middle East

Syrian air defense chief killed as rebels make gains in Hama

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 13, 2014, shows people gathering at the site of a car bomb in al-Arin neighborhood in the Damascus countryside. (AFP PHOTO/HO/SANA)

BEIRUT: The commander of Syria’s air defense forces has been killed during an offensive by President Bashar Assad’s troops against rebels east of Damascus, Islamist rebels and an anti-regime monitoring group said Sunday.

They said Gen. Hussein Ishaq died from wounds suffered the previous day during the assault by Assad’s forces on the town of Mliha, which appears aimed at expanding the president’s control around the capital before a June 3 election.

The air defense forces, which have a large base in Mliha and are responsible for defending against air attacks, have played little part in the war with rebels, who have no air power.

However, Ishaq is one of the most senior military officials to be killed in three years of fighting.

The last high-ranking casualty was Hilal Assad, a cousin of the president and regional head of the National Defense Force militia, who was killed two months ago in the coastal province of Latakia.

“We announce good news to the Islamic nation, of the killing of one of the leaders of unbelief, Gen. Hussein Yaqoub Ishaq, head of the Air Defense Administration in Mliha,” the Islamic Front said in a statement.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime group, also reported Ishaq’s death in Mliha, which is close to the road linking central Damascus to the international airport.

Mliha lies on the edge of the eastern Ghouta region – a mix of farmland and small towns that have formed a base for rebel fighters but which have been surrounded by Assad’s forces for more than a year.

The army, backed by Shiite fighters from Iraq and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has pushed back the rebels around Damascus and consolidated Assad’s grip on central Syria, including areas bordering Lebanon and the country’s third-largest city, Homs.

State media made no mention of Ishaq’s death but pro-Assad websites said he was “martyred” in Mliha.

North of Damascus, rebels killed 34 pro-Assad fighters when they attacked an army post near the town of Tal Malah in Hama province, the Observatory said.

Video footage released by the rebels showed the building – a school that they said the army had commandeered as a base – as well a captured armored personnel carrier and a tank.

The area has changed hands several times during the conflict, and the rebels said it was the third time they had taken control there.

The town of Tal Malah lies on a road linking two Christian towns in Hama province – Sqailbieh and Mhardeh – and is also close to several Alawite villages.

Pro-regime social media acknowledged that the rebels once again seized the village, cutting the road linking the two Christian towns.

The rebels who took over Tal Malah included fighters from the Nusra Front – Al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria – and the Islamic Front, an alliance of seven large conservative militias.

Fierce fighting and government airstrikes were also reported in Deraa province in the south, where the army is pressing a counter-offensive against rebels who have seized several military facilities in recent weeks.

State media has also reported the launching of an offensive against rebels in Deraa.

Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman said: “The army wants to take back hills seized by rebels in recent weeks, linking Deraa and Qunaitra provinces.”

“The army’s counter-offensive, against rebels and the Nusra Front, has been extremely fierce. On Friday the army fired 100 rockets and carried out 15 airstrikes. On Saturday, the air raids and shelling were continuous, and the army also fired a surface-to-surface missile against the village of Sahm,” he told AFP.

Four airstrikes and heavy artillery shelling targeted rebels in the town of Nawa Sunday, the Observatory said, as clashes continued between the two sides.

The army also cut off the only checkpoint leading out of the Damascus suburb of Moadamieh, a formerly besieged town that made a truce late last year with the regime, said the Observatory and activists on the ground. Abu Malek, a medical volunteer in Moadamieh, said the army was demanding that “all civilians from Daraya leave Moadamieh.”

More than 150,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war, which erupted after Assad responded with force to protests against his rule three years ago. After clawing back territory in the center of the country, Assad is now preparing for a presidential election that is widely expected to extend his 14-year rule for another seven-year term.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2014, on page 1.




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