Middle East

52 killed in Syria by mid-afternoon: activists

A man runs to take cover, past rubble and curtains used as cover from snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Jouret al Shayah area in Homs, April 8, 2013. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

BEIRUT: Syrian government rocket fire killed at least 12 people in Homs village near the border with Lebanon, opposition activists reported Wednesday, ratcheting up tensions along the increasingly fractious border, as the death toll in the country soared by mid-afternoon.

Two children were among those killed in the strike in Eastern Buwayda, the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group said.

A YouTube video posted by Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, purported to show a father in the village mourning his dead children, one of whom was missing a leg.

The Daily Star was unable to confirm the authenticity of the video.

By midday, the LCC said 52 people had died across the country.

Eastern Buwaydah is of strategic value to President Bashar Assad's regime because it lies between Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Syria's Alawites – the sect to which the president belongs - Latakia and Tartous, which are also home to the country's two main seaports.

Fierce fighting continued, meanwhile, in Maaret al-Numan in the northwest province of Idlib as rebels tried to halt the progress of Assad’s fighters up a vital highway, linking Aleppo to Damascus.

On Tuesday, government fighters retreated from the countryside surrounding Hamadiya and Wadi Deif military bases near the road, but Wednesday were making a concerted push to break through rebel lines once more.

Over the weekend, government troops broke through a six-month rebel siege on the bases and were able to drive much-need supplies and weapons in.

The fight for the two bases fits into the broader struggle for control of northern Syria, much of which has fallen to the rebels in the past year. Across the north, most of the countryside is in the hands of anti-Assad fighters, while the regime is holding out in isolated military bases and most urban centers.

Maaret al-Numan straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus to the northern city of Aleppo.

If the regime were to regain control of the highway, it would open up a badly needed supply route to its forces in Aleppo - potentially paving the way for further government advances in much of the rebel-held north.

However, Elizabeth O’Bagy, Syria expert and the Institute of War, told The Daily Star Monday that it was unlikely either side will be able to hold the highway for any meaningful length of time.

“What is more likely is that you’ll see parts of the highway go back and forth between rebel and government control, with neither side having absolute authority or control,” she said.

Assad’s troops struck a factory used by rebels for manufacturing explosive devices in Idlib countryside in the morning, state news agency SANA reported.

Rebels sometimes target government forces along the highway with IEDs and car bombs.

On the diplomatic front, Russia’s foreign minister slammed the Friends of Syria group, made up of Western and Arab countries, as undermining dialogue that could help bring an end to the 2-year civil war.

"Right now we see this process is making a negative contribution to the (Geneva) decisions," Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Istanbul in remarks translated to Turkish from Russian, referring to a 2012 accord among world powers in Geneva aimed at solving the Syria conflict through talks involving all parties.

"When one party is isolated in any mechanism set up to deal with a conflict, we miss the ground for dialogue," he said.

Lavrov's comments came ahead of a key Friends of Syria meeting to be held in Istanbul Saturday which will be attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as well as several of his Western and Arab counterparts.

Russia, not a member of Friends of Syria, is viewed as one of Syria's closest allies and has three times blocked U.N. sanctions against Assad's regime over the conflict.

In Damascus, the regime criticized France’s “interference” in the country’s internal affairs Wednesday, a day after Paris condemned an amnesty decree issued by Assad.

"President Assad's decree was issued on the eve of Syria's independence day from France's occupation," SANA said, citing a foreign ministry statement.

"The foreign ministry said the French government should stop interfering in Syria's internal affairs," the agency added.

On Tuesday, Assad issued an amnesty decree offering pardons or lighter sentences to army deserters and certain categories of smugglers. But it came with vast exceptions, and does not apply to those taking up arms against the regime.

France denounced the move as a "deceptive maneuver".

"We should be rejoicing. But this regime has made us grow accustomed to its deceptive maneuvers," said foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot.

France is a member of the Friends of Syria group. – With agencies





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