Aid workers injured in Syrian violence

By Justin Vela

A shell is seen in a street at a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria. Photo / AP
A shell is seen in a street at a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria. Photo / AP

The International Committee of the Red Cross said three aid workers suffered minor injuries when an explosion hit their convoy in northern Syria. Hicham Hassan, spokesman for the ICRC in Geneva, said the two Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteers and one ICRC staff member were traveling from Aleppo to Idlib when the blast hit.

It was the first time Red Cross staffers have been injured since the start of the violence in Syria last year.

RUSSIA REJECTS ATTACK HELICOPTER CLAIM

Russia's foreign minister, meanwhile, rejected the U.S. claim that Moscow was sending attack helicopters to Syria. Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to Iran that Russia was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria exclusively for air defense systems.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the shipment "will escalate the conflict quite dramatically."

SYRIA CLAIMS IT HAS RETAKEN REBELLIOUS VILLAGE

Syrian forces pushed out scores of rebels holed up in a rebellious area near the Mediterranean coast and state television said they retook control of the region following eight days of fierce shelling and clashes.

The mountainous Haffa region is one of several areas where government forces are battling rebels for control in escalating violence. Recovering it is particularly important to the regime because the town is about 30 kilometres from President Bashar Assad's hometown of Kardaha in Latakia province. Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups there.

France said Syria is already in a civil war, echoing a similar statement by U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

The new French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told a news conference in Paris: "If you can't call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it." He added that to stop "this civil war from worsening," Assad must leave power and Syrian opposition groups must start a new government. He said he will be in personal contact with the opposition inside Syria.

SYRIA IN 'CIVIL WAR'

Earlier, Syria's Foreign Ministry expressed "astonishment" over Ladsous' statement that the country was already in a civil war. The ministry said it lacked objectivity, was "far from reality" and inaccurate.

"Syria is not witnessing a civil war but rather an armed conflict to uproot terrorism and confront killings, kidnappings, bombings ... and other brutal acts by armed terrorist groups," the ministry said. Syrian authorities often refer to rebels fighting to oust Assad as terrorists.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned two days ago that Assad's forces could commit massacres in Haffa, drawing condemnation from the Syrian Foreign Ministry which accused the U.S. of "blatant interference" in the country's internal affairs.

State television said regime forces had "cleansed" Haffa from "armed terrorist groups" and the Foreign Ministry urged U.N. observers to immediately head there.

"This invitation comes in the framework of the observers' mission to find out what is happening on the ground and to check what the terrorist groups have done," a statement said.

UN OBSERVERS UNDER PRESSURE

It was not immediately clear whether U.N. observers in Syria would be able to reach Haffa. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the observers' vehicles as they approached the area, forcing them to turn back. The observers were not hurt. Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.

REBELS HOLDING ON

Hundreds of rebel fighters were believed to have been holed up in Haffa and pulled out overnight after intense fighting there and in and nearby villages. The rebel fighters fled the villages of Zanqufa, Dafil and Bakkas under the cover of night, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.

On another front, fireballs of orange flames exploded over the central city of Homs, where Syrian forces fired a continuous rain of shells that slammed into the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Khaldiyeh, Jouret al-Shayyah and the old city.

But even after a week of intense shelling, rebels were still clinging to the area. Footage posted by activists from there showed a city covered in a plume of heavy grey smoke. The intermittent thud of shells was heard, followed by explosions as they slam into buildings.

In the nearby town of Deir Baalbah, rebels and troops exchanged fire in residential areas, with rapid snaps of sustained gunfire echoing through the area, according to amateur video that purported to be from the scene.

In the rebel-held town of Rastan north of Homs, six youths were killed in shelling, activists said. The circumstances of their death were not immediately clear.

CONCERN VIOLENCE WILL SPILL OVER

Turkey said it was concerned that the conflict could spill over its borders as the number of Syrian refugees increased to more than 29,000.

"We are disturbed by the possibility that it could spread to us," Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru told state-run TRT television. Koru said 1,400 more Syrian refugees arrived in the past two days in Turkey.

Activists say some 14,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict so far. Abdul-Rahman said they included 3,400 soldiers.

The state news agency, SANA, said "an armed terrorist group" killed the former head of the Syrian Football Union, Marwan Arafat. SANA said Arafat was attacked as he returned from Jordan to the neighboring southern province of Daraa. It said his wife was critically injured, but offered no other details.

GULF STATES HELP TO ARM REBELS

Syrian rebels are being armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a development that threatens to inflame a regional power struggle.

Rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have received weapons from the two Gulf countries, which were transported into Syria via Turkey with the implicit support of the country's intelligence agency, MIT, according to a Western diplomat in Ankara.

Opposition fighters in Syria have hitherto been handicapped by a reliance on an old and inadequate arsenal of weapons, while the regime in Damascus has been able to rely on a supply of arms from Russia - which has continually ignored attempts by the international community to isolate President Bashar al-Assad's regime - and Iran.

Tehran is Syria's longstanding regional ally and its suspected involvement in the conflict will have infuriated those in Riyadh and Doha who are desperate to prevent a strengthened Iran in the Middle East.

Only minimal amounts of weaponry purchased from black market arms dealers have been smuggled by activists from Hatay in Southern Turkey into Syria's Idlib province since the start of the uprising.

However, three weeks ago, members of the loose assortment of rebel groups that comprises the FSA said they had received multiple shipments of arms including Kalashnikov assault rifles, BKC machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank weaponry from Gulf countries and that Turkey was assisting in the delivery of the weapons.

"The Turkish Government helped us to be armed," said one member of the FSA living in the Turkey-Syria border area. He claimed that the weapons had arrived at a Turkish port via ship and were then driven to the border without interference from Turkish authorities.

Saudi officials have in the past made clear their feeling that the rebels should be armed, with Saudi King Abdullah saying dialogue was "futile".

An Ankara-based Western diplomat confirmed that the delivery of "light weapons" to the rebels was a "recent development", one that involved unmarked trucks transporting the weapons to the border for rebel groups. "There are arms coming in with the knowledge of the Turks," he said.

The Syrian National Council (SNC), the main umbrella organisation of groups opposed to the regime, vetted the consignment.

The SNC is seen as having lost nearly all of its legitimacy with Syrian activists inside the country after failing to unite the fractured opposition. Yet, it appears that Turkey insisted the SNC vouch for the specific FSA groups that would receive the weapons before allowing the arms to cross the border.

"Officially, they are not going to admit it," the diplomat said. However, the SNC are "their guys", he said, referring to MIT.

The vetting process was aimed at preventing the weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic extremists. Yet, the diplomat voiced concerns that, in practice, the weapons have only been delivered to rebels sympathetic to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, the dominant group within the SNC. "Only Muslim Brother groups are getting weapons," he said. Activists along the border not affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood said they had not heard of the weapons being delivered until just a few days ago.

However, the true strength of the Muslim Brotherhood inside Syria is still debated. The diplomat added that the SNC was "finished" due to pervasive in-fighting and that the rebels - who have become the dominant force in the revolution - "might grow a beard" to attract the attention of wealthy religious benefactors for a conflict he characterised as a civil war.

Saudi and Qatari officials did not return requests for comment. At a "friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia in February, the Saudi delegation walked away from proceedings warning that firmer action was needed. Before leaving, the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, described the arming of the Syrian rebels as "an excellent idea".

A Turkish official said: "Turkey is not providing arms ... nor sending armed elements to any neighbouring country, including Syria." He also reiterated that Western countries were still only providing "non-lethal" aid.

While it has hosted members of the FSA in refugee camps in Hatay, Turkey has been hesitant to directly involve itself in the conflict. However, following several cross-border shootings and reports that the regime is supporting Kurdish militants who have engaged in a 30-year conflict with Turkey, the country is changing course, said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

- AP, Independent

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