1 Dec 2012

Syria jets pound Damascus as communication problems continue

Syrian jets bomb rebel-held areas of Damascus, residents say, as a countrywide internet blackout enters its third day.

Syrian state television said the Damascus international airport was open on Saturday and the road leading to it was safe. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-link monitor, said war planes were bombing the Damascus suburbs of Kafar Souseh and Darraya and rebels were fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in the most populated areas of the country.

“Syrian regular forces are trying to control the areas surrounding the capital and clashed with rebel fighters,” the Observatory said.

An aviation source told Reuters that two Syrian Air flights crossed Jordanian air space heading for the Syrian capital on Friday night and that while the Damascus airport was open, not all international airlines were using the airport. Syria Air was operating according to schedule, state television reported. EgyptAir and Emirates suspended flights to Damascus on Friday and there was no sign that Air Arabia and flydubai flew scheduled trips.

Internet disruption

Communication problems were at their worst since the 20-month-old uprising began. While activists blamed authorities, officials attributed the lack of internet communications on either a “terrorist” attack or a technical fault. Abu Yazen, an activist from the central city of Homs, said rebel units had been using satellite phones, radios and Skype to coordinate with each other.

“There is no internet or phone service in Syria but it has not affected our work too much,” he told Reuters over Skype.

French foreign ministry spokesman Philippe Lalliot called the communications problem of a matter of “extreme concern”.

“It is another demonstration of what the Damascus regime is doing to hold its people hostage,” he said.

An estimated 40,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict. Activists claimed 80 people were killed in fighting on Friday but there was no way to independently confirm those figures. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to flee the country. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned that refugee numbers could swell to 700,000 by January.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels who are battling Assad, from Syria’s Alawite minority linked to Shi’ite Islam, have made gains by overrunning military bases and attacking Damascus. A rebel military spokesman Musaab Abu Qitada told Reuters they were trying to “liberate” the airport to stop arms shipments.

‘Appalling’ brutality

Ban Ki-moon said the conflict had reached “appalling” heights of brutality and violence.

He told the UN General Assembly: “Opposition elements also have stepped up their attacks. I am horrified and saddened and condemn the seemingly daily massacres of civilians.”

A Damascus-based diplomat told Reuters that he believed the escalation in fighting around the capital was part of a government offensive which aimed to seal off the state-controlled centre of the city from rebel-held rural areas to the south and east.

There were varying reports that between 12 and 17 Lebanese gunmen were killed in a Syrian army ambush in the central Syrian province of Homs on Friday, a further indication that the civil war was spilling over into neighbouring countries.