Syrian helicopter down under fire in Damascus
A Syrian military helicopter came down in flames in Damascus on Monday as President Bashar al-Assad's air force strafed and bombarded rebel-held districts in the capital and in Aleppo.
State television confirmed a helicopter had crashed in the Syrian capital but gave no details. Opposition activists said rebels had shot it down. Opposition video footage showed a crippled aircraft trailing fire and crashing into a built-up area, sending up a pillar of oily black smoke.
A day after his enemies accused Assad's troops and sectarian militia of massacring hundreds of people in the town of Daraya near Damascus, the possible shooting down of the helicopter, the latest of several such successes claimed by lightly armed rebel fighters, bolstered morale. But, witnesses said, even more intense army bombardments followed.
"It was flying over the eastern part of the city and firing all morning," an activist calling himself Abu Bakr told Reuters from near where the helicopter came down in the suburb of Qaboun. "The rebels had been trying to hit for about an hour," he said. "Finally they did."
Video footage carried the sound of people celebrating the helicopter's dive with shouts of "Allahu akbar (God is great)".
Although rebel commanders have asked foreign allies for anti-aircraft missiles, Western nations are unwilling to supply such weapons for fear of them falling into hostile hands. There was no indication fighters in Damascus had used any missiles.
Army helicopters had begun firing rockets and machineguns on Sunday at Jobar, Zamalka and Irbin, working class Sunni Muslim neighborhoods on the eastern outskirts of the city.
Rebels have launched attacks against Assad's forces in and around Damascus in recent weeks, drawing a fierce response.
Activists said the latest bombardment of Jobar erupted a day after rebels killed an army sniper and captured another near a roadblock in Jobar, a run-down, cement block neighborhood near a stadium they said was now used as an army base.
"Assad's army retaliated by arbitrarily arresting 100 people in Jobar. Helicopters dropped fliers warning residents to hand over what the regime describes as terrorists or face annihilation," said Abu Omar, a merchant who lives in the area told Reuters by phone before the helicopter came down.
"It's been going on since seven in the morning. The sound of gunfire and mortar shells exploding hasn't stopped," said activist Samir al-Shami. "I see smoke rising everywhere."
An activist based in the eastern suburbs outside Damascus, Mohammed Doumany, said Assad's forces were firing mortar shells and helicopters were shooting at nearby towns as rebels fired back with machineguns and assault rifles.
"There are constant explosions and blasts from mortars. The rebels are attacking security force checkpoints in the suburbs," he said. Two people had been killed in the shelling, he added.
On Sunday, opposition activists said they had found about 320 bodies, including women and children, in houses and basements in Daraya, just southwest of Damascus. Most had been killed "execution-style", they said.
Activist videos on the Internet showed rows of bloodied bodies wrapped in sheets. Most seemed to be young men, but at least one video showed several children who appeared to have been shot in the head. The body of one toddler was soaked in blood.
Due to restrictions on non-state media in Syria, it was impossible to verify the accounts independently.
The uprising, which began as peaceful protests, has become a civil war. United Nations investigators have accused both sides of war crimes but laid more blame on government troops and pro-government militia than on the rebels.
The killings in Daraya, a working class Sunni Muslim town that sustained three days of bombardment before being overrun by the army on Friday, raised the daily death toll to 440 people on Saturday, one of the highest since the uprising began, an activist network called the Local Coordination Committees said.
The official state news agency said: "Our heroic armed forces cleansed Daraya from remnants of armed terrorist groups who committed crimes against the sons of the town."
The death toll for the following day, Sunday, was about 200, including civilians and fighters, according to another activist network, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Clashes are raging across Syria as the 17-month-old rebellion grows increasingly bloody, particularly in Aleppo, Syria's biggest city and its economic hub, where the army and rebels appear stuck in a war of attrition.
Fighting in the northern city on Sunday was the heaviest in the past week, according to Reuters journalists on the ground. Helicopters were circling and firing occasionally on Monday.
Rebels say they control at least half the city of 2.5 million, but their hold is fragile since Assad's forces can unleash their air power and artillery against fighters who are comparatively lightly armed.
Assad, who met an Iranian parliamentary delegation in the capital on Sunday, said the crisis was the result of Western and regional states trying to crush Syria's role in the "resistance" against Western and Israeli domination in the region.
"What is happening right now is not just a plot directed against Syria but the region as a whole, of which Syria is a foundation stone," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying.
The United Nations says more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict that pits a mainly Sunni opposition against a ruling system dominated by the Assad family and other members of the Alawite faith, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.
Diplomatic efforts to stop the violence in Syria are stalled by a stalemate between Western countries, Gulf Arab states and Turkey - which all support the opposition - and Iran, Russia and China - which back Assad.
With veto-wielding Russia leading resistance to action against Assad, the U.N. Security Council remains deadlocked.
Egypt is seeking to arrange a four-way meeting with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the main regional heavyweights. Iran, a Shi'ite power, is Assad's main backer, while Saudi Arabia is believed to be supplying weapons to the rebels.
Iran accuses its foes in the West and the Arab world of fuelling the conflict by arming the opposition.
[Source: By Khaled Yacoub Oweis and Oliver Holmes, Reuters, Amman and Aleppo, 27Aug12]
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