The Syrian government is sending members of its irregular militias for guerrilla combat training at a secret base in Iran, in a move to bolster its armed forces drained by two years of fighting and defections, fighters and activists said.
The discreet program has been described as an open secret in some areas loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, who is trying to crush a revolt against his family’s four-decade hold on power.
Reuters interviewed four fighters who said they were taken on the combat course in Iran, as well as opposition sources who said they had also been documenting such cases.
Israel’s intelligence chief and a Western diplomat have said Iran, Assad’s main backer, is helping to train at least 50,000 militiamen and aims to increase the force to 100,000 – though they did not say where the training occurred.
No one at Iran’s foreign ministry was available for comment, but Iranian officials have repeatedly denied military involvement in the Syrian conflict, saying they have only provided humanitarian aid and political support for Assad.
By AL ARABIYA WITH AGENCIES
More than 60 people were killed nationwide in Syria on Sunday, including at least 34 people in central Hama province, which came under heavy army shelling for hours, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
“Thirty-four people were killed under shelling and gunfire in Souran village while it was being raided,” the Britain-based watchdog said, revising up an earlier toll of 16 people killed, including three children.
The bloody violence continues despite the existence of a U.N. mission, whose members were targeted hours earlier with a rocket-propelled grenade in the town of Douma, north of Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory said “there is no evidence that there were any clashes taking place” in the village of Souran before the deadly shelling took place.
The Syrian Revolution Commission reported that a total of 28 people were killed across the country as deadly violence continued despite the existence of a U.N. observer mission tasked to watch a non-existent ceasefire.
Early on Sunday, a rocket-propelled grenade landed near a team of observers visiting the town of Douma, a northern suburb of Damascus, according to an AFP correspondent at the scene.
The head of a Syria ceasefire monitoring mission, Major General Robert Mood, was stopped in a car at an army checkpoint when the bomb detonated in a nearby alleyway.
While there were no reports of casualties, it was an indication of the mounting dangers posed across the country from clashes between Syrian regime troops and armed rebel fighters, which had been witnessed in Douma before the bomb exploded.
Mood and U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous were among the team of observers, the journalist added.
After the observers left the area, a civilian was shot dead in Douma by a sniper, local monitors reported.
The streets of Douma were deserted, and most of its shops were closed, according to AFP. Posters had been torn off the walls and rubbish containers overturned.
Pro- and anti-regime slogans filled the walls of what appeared to be a ghost town. “Douma will not kneel except before God,” read one slogan, while another read “Assad’s soldiers were here.”
“When the observers leave, the armed men will come back to cause trouble,” one soldier told reporters at the scene, in a reference to rebels who have taken up arms over the course of the anti-regime revolt.
In Basra al-Sham city of southern Daraa province, an army defector was killed in an overnight ambush by regime forces, the Observatory said.
In Jisr al-Shughur in northwest Idlib, a flashpoint of unrest, armed men assassinated a Baath party official, the monitor said, amid a marked increase of assassinations targeting people associated with the regime.
“There is definitely an increase in assassinations targeting people associated with the regime, be they officials or pro-regime businessmen,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP news agency by telephone.
The monitoring group also said that fresh demonstrations took place in several areas of northwest Idlib and in Hama calling for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
In Daraa province, demonstrations were also held calling for the release of activist and citizen journalist Mohammed al-Hariri, who according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has been sentenced to death for “high treason.”
The latest demonstrations took place after fierce fighting between regime troops and armed rebels rocked parts of the Syrian capital Damascus overnight, the Observatory said.
“Violent clashes broke out between rebel fighters and regime troops at a checkpoint in Kafr Sousa district,” it added.
The Local Coordination Committees, an anti-regime network of activists on the ground in Syria, said that in the wake of the fighting, Kafr Sousa in the south of the capital saw the “arrival of huge reinforcements” of regime troops.
Clashes also broke out in others parts of southern Damascus, the Observatory said, adding that gunfire had during the night echoed across the city Centre.
On Saturday, 23 people were killed in violence across Syria, the Observatory said.
More than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died in Syria since an anti-regime revolt broke out in March 2011, according to the monitoring group.
By AL ARABIYA WITH AGENCIES
Arab leaders on Thursday called on increased dialogue between Syrian opposition leaders while urging a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria at a landmark summit in Baghdad.
In a closing statement on Thursday, the Arab officials said that Syrian opposition groups need to have united goals, while Arab League secretary-general Nabil al-Araby said the conflict in Syria is now the “responsibility of the U.N. Security Council.”
Araby also said that there is renewed hope for Syria after Assad’s support for a U.N. peace plan proposed by the U.N.-Arab League’s special envoy Kofi Annan.
The summit on Thursday was opened with a call for peace by Ban Ki-moon.
“It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect,” Ban Ki-Moon told the Arab officials.
The plan had stipulated that Assad pull his troops and heavy weapons from cities before peace talks with his opponents. But despite reports that Assad had agreed to the plan on Tuesday, security force violence still continued across the country.
By AL ARABIYA WITH AGENCIES
The United States on Wednesday accused the embattled Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, of failing to fulfill a pledge to respect a U.N.-Arab League peace plan.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland assailed the Syrian leader, telling reporters that “Assad has not taken the necessary steps to implement” the peace plan crafted by former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan.
Syrian forces on Wednesday stormed a rebel bastion despite Assad’s reported acceptance of Annan’s peace plan and an opposition plea that tanks be withdrawn, monitors said.
Washington is concerned over “arrests and violence continuing in Syria today,” Nuland said, vowing to “keep the pressure on Assad.”
“We will judge him on his actions, not his promises,” the spokeswoman said.
By AL ARABIYA WITH AFP
Huge rallies played up support for Syria’s president on Thursday despite a new “massacre” report and a refugee exodus to Turkey as a deadly revolt against his autocratic rule entered a second year.
International peace envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, demanded answers from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime before the U.N. Security Council re-enters the fray in a conflict which monitors now say has cost more than 9,100 lives.
State television showed tens of thousands of people waving Syrian flags and Assad’s portrait in squares in Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo, Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, Suweida to the south and Hasaka in the northeast.
The cities have been relatively unscathed by the deadly crackdown on dissent.
Bahrain shut its embassy in Syria on Thursday and withdrew diplomats and staff due to worsening security in the country, following a similar move by Saudi Arabia which had also closed its embassy in Damascus on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Revolution General Commission reported a total of 76 people were killed by security force gunfire across Syria on Thursday, according to Al Arabiya reports.
The bodies of 23 torture victims were found also on Thursday near the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria that security forces captured earlier this week, a monitoring group said.
“Twenty-three bodies with marks of extreme torture were found near Mazraat Wadi Khaled, west of the city of Idlib,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in a statement.
The Britain-based group said the 23 blindfolded and handcuffed victims had been shot dead.
It also reported that security forces on Thursday killed nine civilians, including four in a car, and four rebels across the province of Idlib.
The city of Idlib fell to government forces on Tuesday night, two weeks after the regime stormed the Baba Amr district of Homs city in central Syria, following a month-long blitz that activists said left hundreds dead.
Syrian activists have compiled a list of 114 civilians killed since security forces launched their assault on Idlib on March 10, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
Following the Baba Amro offensive, residents of nearby neighborhoods reported finding the mutilated bodies of women and children. Activists posted video footage they said proved regime forces were to blame.
The government blamed “armed terrorist gangs.”
Syrian troops committed another massacre in Idlib on Monday that left as many as 55 people dead, Al Arabiya reported on Tuesday citing activists at the Syrian Revolution Commission. The new massacre comes one day after the Syrian regime committed killed 50 people in a massacre in Karm al-Zeitoun neighborhood in Homs. Most of Sunday’s victims were women and children, according to activists.
Activists said that death toll from Monday’s violent crackdown on protesters hit 114 people, mostly in Homs and Idlib.
Scores of tanks were deployed in Rankous in Damascus suburbs and in the capital Damascus, Syrian troops launched a wide-scale campaign of crackdown and arrests in al-Assaly neighborhood, Al Arabiya reported.
In the Christian neighborhood of Humaideya in Homs, churches opened their doors to receive the homeless residents who fled the shelling in other neighborhoods.
The West clashed with Russia at the United Nations Security Council over Syria on Monday.
The conflict appeared to inch closer to civil war with the exiled Syrian National Council (SNC) saying it was preparing to arm anti-government rebels with foreign help. But the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad remained fragmented.
Syria’s main opposition group on Monday called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting following reports that some 50 women and children were massacred in the central city of Homs.
“The Syrian National Council is making the necessary contacts with all organizations and countries that are friends with the Syrian people for the U.N. Security Council to hold an emergency meeting,” the SNC said in a statement
The massacre was committed by the Syrian regime in the Karm al-Zaitoun and al-Adaweya neighborhoods of Homs, Al Arabiya reported earlier Monday citing activists at the Syrian Revolution Commission.
The massacre was carried out by the security forces and the regime’s ‘shabbiha’ (thugs), who killed the victims inside their homes, activists told Al Arabiya. The victims were killed by horrific methods; including burning, breaking their bones or slaughtering, according to activists.
A physician from Homs told Al Arabiya that as many as 16 cases of rape were reported on Sunday. He said that there are around 95 injured people in the city.
U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, meanwhile, has ended talks with President Bashar al-Assad and left Syria with little sign of progress on halting the country’s growing political bloodshed.
By Al Arabiya With Agencies
Russia said Friday it opposed an “unbalanced” U.S.-backed U.N. draft resolution on the Syria crisis because it did not contain a call for a simultaneous halt in violence by the government and rebels.
“We cannot agree with the draft resolution in the form it is being presented in today. The text of the resolution under discussion is unbalanced,” Interfax quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying.
Meanwhile, China said it is sending an envoy to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to explain its position on Syria, after Beijing called for an end to the year-long conflict in the Middle East country.
China unveiled a six-point peace plan last Sunday, calling for an immediate end to the bloody violence and for dialogue between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition.
Shielded from U.N Security Council by Russia and China, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad continued its bloody repression of opposition in different parts of the country.
Syrian tanks on Friday fired on opposition districts in Homs, killing four people, activists said, ahead of a mission by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end a year-long conflict edging into civil war.
Opponents of President Bashar al-Assad said they were planning to show their strength in the streets after weekly Muslim prayers, but the tankfire kept many indoors in Homs.
They said nationwide protests would mark the anniversary of Kurdish unrest in northeastern Syria in 2004 that was crushed by security forces with about 30 people killed.
Annan has called for dialogue to reach a political solution, but opposition figures chided him for a proposal they said would only give Assad’s forces more time to crush his foes.
Rifts among big powers have blocked any U.N. action to resolve the crisis, with China and Russia firmly opposing any measure that might lead to Libya-style military intervention.
China welcomed the former U.N. chief’s mission. “We hope that Mr Annan uses his wisdom and experience to push for all sides in Syria to end their violence and start the process of peace talks,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.
Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against critics of his bloody crackdown, twice joining China in vetoing U.N. resolutions on Syria.
A Russian diplomat said Assad was battling al-Qaeda-backed “terrorists” including at least 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if government troops withdrew.
Moscow could play a vital role in any diplomatic effort to ease Assad from power and spare Syria further bloodletting.
“If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally,” the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has said parts of the Syrian city of Homs have been “completely devastated”.
She said that it felt like the city had been closed down entirely.
Baroness Amos visited the city on Wednesday, briefly entering the bombed-out Baba Amr district.
Aid teams have waited days to go there, but aid officials said most residents had gone to areas already getting aid. The government retook the district last week after fierce shelling.
Activists say troops committed massacres since they entered. Damascus blames rebels for many deaths.
International media organisations are heavily restricted in Syria, making it impossible to verify the claims of either side.
The rebel Free Syrian Army left the city last week in the hope, it said, of protecting civilians from further violence.
Bashar al-Assad’s assault on Homs has claimed the life of Marie Colvin, 55, a longtime American journalist who had been reporting there for The Sunday Times of London. Colvin was working in an improvised media hub inside the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, which has been under siege for weeks. French photographer Remi Ochlik was killed in the assault as well. Just days ago, veteran conflict reporter Anthony Shadid died of an apparent asthma attack in Syria.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted on Wednesday, “Saddened by terrible news about Marie Colvin. She died helping people of Syria share their plight with the world. A great loss for us all.”
Ochlik was an award-winning war photographer. His photo “Battle for Libya,” won first prize from World Press Photo in its 2012 general news category.
Tuesday night, just hours before her death, Colvin was on CNN, telling Anderson Cooper about seeing a boy die after his house was hit by a shell. “There’s a lot of snipers on the high buildings surrounding the neighborhood,” Colvin told CNN. “I can sort of figure out where a sniper is, but you can’t figure out where a shell is going to land.”