UK News



British Queen celebrates


A Syrian combat helicopter crashed in Damascus on Monday, state television said, as fierce fighting reportedly gripped the east of the capital a day after the regime was accused of a new massacre.

A series of explosions rocked the city from about dawn and a watchdog reported heavy shelling and fighting between government troops and rebels in several eastern and northeastern districts and nearby towns.

State television said the chopper came down near a mosque in Qaboon, but gave no further information, while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it believed it "was hit while it was being used in fighting nearby."

Helicopter gunships were shelling the neighbouring district of Jubar, where anti-regime sentiment is strong, the Observatory said, and reported heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government troops.

A rebel Free Syrian Army group claimed responsibility for the attack, with a spokesman saying that the pilot had been killed.

"It was in revenge for the Daraya massacre," Omar al-Qabooni, a spokesman for the Badr Batallion in Damascus told AFP via Skype. He said the rebels had found the body of the pilot after the burning aircraft crashed to the ground. His claims could not be independently verified.

The assault on the northeast of the capital was unleashed a day after opposition activists accused President Bashar al-Assad's regime of gruesome new massacre in the southwestern town of Daraya.

The Observatory said hundreds of bodies had been found in the small Sunni Muslim town after what activists described as brutal five-day onslaught of shelling, summary executions and house-to-house raids by government troops.

It said Sunday that 320 people had been killed and on Monday reported the discovery of another 14 bodies in Daraya after the offensive by troops battling to crush insurgents who have regrouped in the southwestern outskirts of Damascus.

Assad vowed Sunday that he would not change course in the face of what he charged was a "conspiracy" by Western and regional powers against Syria.

"The Syrian people will not allow this conspiracy to achieve its objectives" and will defeat it "at any price," Assad said at a meeting with a top official from Iran, Syria's chief regional ally.

Assad has since March last year been trying through force to smother a popular uprising that has turned into a brutal civil war which has left thousands dead, seen more than 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and 2.5 million in need inside Syria.

But despite their far superior fire power, the government forces are struggling to defeat rebels who have built strongholds in many parts of the country, particularly the northern city of Aleppo.

Human rights groups have accused the regime of committing many atrocities in its attempts to crush the uprising, and a UN panel said earlier this month it was guilty of crimes against humanity.

Grisly videos issued by opposition activists showed dozens of charred and bloodied bodies lined up in broad daylight in a graveyard in Daraya, and others lying wall-to-wall in rooms in a mosque.

The Local Coordination Committees, a network of activists on the ground, said many victims had been summarily executed and their bodies burnt by pro-regime shabiha militias that have been transformed into a "killing machine".

"Bodies were found in fields, basements and shelters and in the streets," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that many of the victims had died in shelling or were summarily executed.

Britain said that if confirmed, the Daraya massacre "would be an atrocity on a new scale."


State media said blamed the rebels for the killings and said Daraya, a conservative Sunni Muslim town of some 200,000 people, had been was "purified of terrorist remnants."

Pro-government television Al-Dunia said "terrorists" carried out the attacks, as it interviewed residents including traumatised children and showed a number of bloodied bodies lying in the streets.

"Our valiant armed forces cleared Daraya of the remnants of armed terrorist groups which committed crimes that traumatised the citizens of the town and destroyed public and private property," government newspaper Ath-Thawra said.

Meanwhile, the head of the Iranian parliament's foreign policy committee, Aladin Borujerdi, vowed that Tehran will "stick by our Syrian brothers" at a meeting with Assad and Vice President Faruq al-Shara in Damascus.

It was the first public appearance in over a month by Shara -- the regime's top Sunni Muslim official -- following opposition claims he had tried to defect and was under house arrest.

Iran is a staunch ally of Assad's regime but is being excluded from most international efforts aimed at ending the conflict which has divided world powers with the West supporting the rebels and Moscow and Beijing backing Damascus.

The Britain-based Observatory, which has a network of sources on the ground, reported a total of at least 149 people killed nationwide on Sunday.

August is already the deadliest single month of the conflict with at least 4,000 people killed, according to the Observatory, while around 25,000 have died since March 2011. The United Nations puts the death toll at more than 17,000.

AFP, photo by Free Syria