Syria army ramps up shelling near capital ahead of talks
BEIRUTSyrian government forces on Feb. 20 escalated their bombing campaign around Damascus, raining shells down on rebel territory and sending out a “bloody message” just days before renewed peace talks in Geneva.
Representatives from the opposition and of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are to head to Switzerland on Feb. 23 for another attempt to end their country’s brutal six-year war.
But regime forces on Feb. 20 escalated their bombing of the edges of Syria’s capital, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and activists on the ground.
“The toll in regime air strikes on [northern rebel district of Damascus] Barzeh has increased to seven people, including a woman and child,” the Observatory said, adding that 12 more had been wounded.
The Britain-based monitor said rockets also hit the northeastern opposition-controlled neighborhood of Qabun overnight and into the morning of Feb. 20.
Rebels and regime forces reached a local cease-fire deal in Qabun in 2014, but violence has built up in the neighborhood since last week.
At least 16 people were killed on Feb. 18 in government rocket fire on a funeral in Qabun, according to the Observatory.
Syria’s opposition on Feb. 19 lambasted the government’s renewed bombing campaign around the capital, calling it a “bloody message” aimed at sabotaging the peace talks.
The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said the attacks near Damascus and elsewhere across the country were “obstructing the efforts aimed at a political transition in Syria.”
“It is a bloody message from a criminal regime just a few days ahead of political negotiations in Geneva that demonstrates its rejection of any political solution,” the HNC said in an online statement.
The HNC - formed in December 2015 and which has emerged as the leading umbrella group for Syria’s opposition factions - has a new chief opposition negotiator for the Geneva talks, lawyer Mohammed Sabra.
He replaces Mohamed Alloush of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), a powerful rebel faction headquartered in the opposition bastion of Eastern Ghouta.
The Feb. 23 talks in Switzerland will be the fourth round of U.N.-hosted peace negotiations, and Syrians caught in the six-year conflict did not have much hope for a political solution.
Four Russian military dead in Syria blast
Four Russian military personnel were killed and two injured when their vehicle was targeted with explosives in central Syria last week, a Russian Defense Ministry statement said on Feb. 20, according to AFP.
“Four Russian servicemen died when their car exploded on a radio-controlled IED on Feb. 16, 2017, in Syria,” the statement said. “Two more were injured. Russian military medics are trying to save their lives.”
“The convoy of Syrian army cars, in which the vehicle with Russian military advisers was travelling, was en route from the Tiyas airfield area toward the city of Homs,” it said.
“After they travelled four kilometres, a radio-controlled explosive was activated under the car with Russian servicemen.”
The four deaths raise the number of Russian military officially reported killed in Syria to 26 since it started its campaign in Syria in support of al-Assad on Sept. 30, 2015. Another soldier committed suicide.