Syrian army pounds rebels in pre-talks shelling

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BEIRUT: Syrian government forces Monday 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.

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Representatives from the opposition and of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime are to head to Switzerland on Thursday for another attempt to end their country’s brutal six-year war.

But regime forces Monday escalated their bombing of the edges of the 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 neighbourhood of Qabun overnight and into Monday morning.

Rebels and regime forces reached a local ceasefire in Qabun in 2014, but violence erupted there at the weekend when 16 people were killed in government rocket fire on a funeral.

“This is the third day of bombardment — rockets, artillery, mortars and air strikes,” said media activist Hamza Abbas, speaking to AFP via internet from Qabun, where he said he could hear non-stop shelling.

“The bombardment is targeting three neighbourhoods — Qabun, Barzeh and Tishreen,” Abbas said.

A Syrian military source contacted by AFP declined to comment on the operations.

Targeting Ghouta

Syria’s opposition on Sunday lambasted the government’s renewed bombing campaign around the capital, alleging that its aim was to sabotage the peace talks.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC) said the attacks near Damascus and elsewhere 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 was formed in December 2015 and has emerged as the leading umbrella group for Syria’s opposition factions. It has a new chief opposition negotiator for the Geneva talks, lawyer Mohammed Sabra.

He replaces Mohammed Alloush of the Army of Islam (Jaish al-Islam), a powerful faction headquartered in the rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta.

That district, which has faced a blistering army offensive in recent months, is near opposition-controlled areas of Damascus increasingly targeted by the government.

Assad’s regime is “bitterly determined to rid itself of the insurgent enclave, one way or another”, analyst Aron Lund wrote in a post for the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center.

‘Scared of conferences’

Thursday’s talks in Switzerland will be the fourth round of UN-hosted peace negotiations, and Syrians caught in the six-year conflict do not hold out many hopes for a political solution.

Radwan al-Homsi, a media activist in northwest Syria, told AFP that violence always increased after previous talks in Geneva in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Instead of securing peace, “it’s actually the opposite — we’re now very scared of anything called a conference, because after every conference, there’s a military campaign”, the 27-year-old said from the town of Binnish.

Since the last round of talks in April 2016, rebels have lost their stronghold in east Aleppo and seen a new partnership form between their main ally Turkey and government backer Russia.

Ankara and Moscow have teamed up to host two rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan in a bid to bolster a faltering truce they brokered in December.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 310,000 people, morphing since 2011 from a protest movement against Assad into a fully fledged war that has seen jihadists rise to prominence.

Turkey in August launched an unprecedented incursion into Syria, backing rebels to oust the Islamic State group and Kurdish militia from the border area.

On Monday, 11 members of one family were killed in Al-Bab as Turkey-backed rebels advanced on the IS-held town, the Observatory said.

And in Raqa, the jihadist group’s de facto capital, eight civilians were killed in air strikes by unidentified warplanes, the monitor said.

It added that 250 rebels and members of their families left the Serghaya area near the Lebanese border Monday under a local truce with the regime, heading to the northwestern province of Idlib, which is mostly rebel-held.

Also Monday, an attack by former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front on a hospital in the southern city of Daraa killed three people, state news agency SANA reported. AFP

AFP/CC

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