DAMASCUS, (AFP) — Furious combat raged around the main airport and a military airbase in northern Syria on Thursday, the day after the United Nations gave a staggering toll of 60,000 dead in the 21-month civil war.
Insurgents besieged troops on the perimeter of the international airport in Aleppo, the hard fought-over principal city of Syria’s north, and an air force base in Idlib province, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Aleppo airport has been closed since Tuesday after repeated attacks by rebels, according to an airport official, who said it would reopen as soon as the army regained control of the surrounding area.
Rebels holding swathes of the north were targeted by regime shelling overnight in Aleppo’s Sakhur district and in the towns of Marea and Aazaz farther north near the Turkish border.
Meanwhile, hundreds of fighters of two hardline Islamist rebel groups, the Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, fought soldiers around the Taftanaz airbase in the northwestern province of Idlib, the British-based Observatory said, adding that air strikes were blasting rebel positions.
The rebels had remotely detonated a bomb at one of the airbase’s gates the day before but were pushed back by the army, according to both the Observatory and a military source inside the base.
The military source told AFP that clashes outside the base had been non-stop for more than 48 hours and there had been a large number of rebel casualties.
Three rebels were elsewhere killed in combat with troops around the Deir Ezzor military airport, as fighting also broke out in the nearby provincial capital in the east of the country.
In the town of Mleha, just east of Damascus, bodies were being recovered from a service station hit by a regime airstrike on Wednesday.
The toll from the attack was not yet known, but the Observatory said at least 12 bodies were recovered, several of them rebels. The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots network of activists, estimated that at least 50 people were killed.
The Observatory said 219 people died on Wednesday nationwide — 115 civilians, 57 rebels and 47 soldiers.
A 33-truck aid convoy organised by Turkish and Qatari relief groups left Istanbul on Thursday carrying 850 tonnes of flour.
“Assad’s regime is bombing the bakeries and there is a very huge need for flour in Syria,” Huseyin Oruc, the vice-president of Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, said.
— ‘Shocking’ death toll —
The overall death toll of the 21-month Syrian conflict has unsettled observers.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday called it “truly shocking” as she revealed a vetted UN tally nearly a third higher than that previously compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The number of casualties is much higher than we expected, and is truly shocking,” she said in a statement.
“Given there has been no let-up in the conflict since the end of November, we can assume that more than 60,000 people have been killed by the beginning of 2013,” Pillay said.
The average number of deaths recorded in recent months was five times that registered mid-2011, reflecting intensifying viciousness and an increased resort by the government to airstrikes.
Pillay said in her statement that “this massive loss of life could have been avoided” if the government of President Bashar al-Assad had not chosen the “ruthless suppression” of what initially were peaceful protests.
One of Assad’s main allies, Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, warned that Syria was threatened with “schemes of division and partition”.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned at the weekend that the Syrian civil war was worsening “by the day” and said that Damascus faced a choice between “hell or the political process.”
Karim Bitar, an analyst at the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations, was sceptical the new UN toll would have a political impact.
“The world has become unfortunately so toughened to these figures, sort of anaesthetised. There is this terrible Stalin quote: ‘One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic’,” he said.