Middle East

March deadliest month as Damascus battle heats up

Rebel fighters take position inside a damaged shop in the Sidi Meqdad area in the suburbs of Damascus.

BEIRUT: Intensified fighting in Damascus has made March the deadliest month since the start of the Syria war with more than 6,000 people killed, a prominent activist group said Monday.

The rise in the death toll was attributed to renewed shelling and clashes across the country, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, told The Daily Star, although he noted that “in the last month we have seen an increase in violence specifically in Damascus city and the suburbs.”

The Observatory’s total death toll for the 2-year-old conflict stands at 62,554, lower than the U.N.’s figure of 70,000, but Rami Abdul-Rahman told The Daily Star there were likely to be additional deaths within government militias and rebels groups which the rival fighters were reluctant to disclose.

“Both the opposition and the regime forces are working to hide information about the number of their own dead,” he said.

Also unknown is the number of dead among the tens of thousands jailed by President Bashar Assad’s forces since the conflict began. Some 2,250 dead opposition fighters are unknown, and the Observatory said it believed most of those were fighters from abroad who joined the rebels in Syria, which has become a site for jihad to many Islamist militant groups.

As in previous months, around a third of those killed in March were civilians, the Observatory said. Almost 300 children died, taking the number killed in the conflict to around 4,390. The toll also included 291 women, 1,486 rebel fighters and army defectors and 1,464 government soldiers. The rest were unidentified civilians and fighters.

The numbers, while provided by only one group, support the appraisal of the conflict offered by many Syria watchers: The civil war is largely a military stalemate that is destroying the country’s social fabric and taking a huge toll on civilians.

The Observatory opposes Assad but has monitored human rights violations on both sides of a revolt that began as peaceful protests but is now a brutal war between forces loyal to the regime and an array of rebel militias.

Fierce clashes raged in Aleppo throughout the day, the Observatory said, as regime forces appeared to make headway in the rebel-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood.

The fighting followed heavy regime shelling in the city Sunday, forcing hundreds of residents to flee.

Abdul-Rahman told The Daily Star Monday that hundreds of families had left Aleppo over the previous 24 hours. The Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, which is predominantly inhabited by minority Kurds, is located on a hill on the northern edge of the city. The area, which is considered one of the most strategic locations in the city because it overlooks much of Aleppo, houses many internally displaced people as it had been relatively calm until now.

Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and a former commercial hub, has been a key battleground in the country’s civil war since rebels launched an offensive there in July, seizing several districts before the fighting largely settled into a bloody stalemate.

Much of the city has since been destroyed, and residents suffer constant power cuts and frequent water shortages.

There were also reports of clashes at an Aleppo prison. Several YouTube clips showed rebel fighters waving Islamist flags and storming the compound in an apparent attempt to free detainees. The Daily Star was unable to verify the authenticity of the videos.

Southeast of Aleppo, fresh battles broke out near the city’s international airport, which has been closed since January.

In the province of Homs, an activist using the name Mohammad al-Qusayr told The Daily Star opposition fighters targeted a busload of shabbiha and soldiers near the town of Al-Qusair, killing all on board, but without providing further detail.

In recent weeks, rebels in the southern province of Deraa along the Jordanian border have seized towns and military bases from the government with the help of an increased influx of foreign-funded weapons.

In the Deraa town of Khirbet Ghazaleh, government warplanes launched airstrikes at the 49th Battalion airbase, where rebels have been stationed, according to activists. Nearby Yadoudeh and the strategic town of Dael were also bombed, according to activists.

In the capital Damascus, shelling was reported in the neighborhoods of Douma, Zabadani , Bahdaliyeh and Modamiyet Al-Sham. Sniper fire was reported to have killed one civilian in the neighborhood of Barzeh, and a car bomb in the northern neighborhood of Rukn al-Din caused several injuries.

An ancient synagogue in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus has been damaged in fierce clashes there, according to a Syrian antiquities official Monday.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department of the Syrian Culture Ministry, said Monday that objects from the 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue were stolen last year, but that officials hadn’t been able to visit the building for months because rebels control the area.

The death toll across the country was 94 by sundown, according to the opposition Local Coordination Committees. – With agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 02, 2013, on page 1.

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