BEIRUT, (Reuters) – Syrian government troops stormed into a Palestinian refugee district and raided its hospital on Saturday after a four-day artillery assault on the southern suburb where rebels have been hiding out, opposition activists said.
President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have preferred to use air power and artillery to hit areas where rebels are dug in, deploying infantry only once many have fled. Activists said they feared for civilian inhabitants in the new ground onslaught.
The almost 18-month-old conflict spilled further over borders when three rockets fired from Syria crashed into an Iraqi frontier town, killing a 5-year-old girl, according to local inhabitants and Iraqi officials.
Assad’s use of military force to quell an uprising that began as a peaceful pro-democracy movement has cost him many allies in the Arab and Muslim world and caused a trickle of defections from Syrian government and army ranks.
Two Syrian diplomats in Malaysia announced late on Friday that they had joined the opposition, according to a report by pan-Arab television channel Al Arabiya.
Two men identifying themselves as First Secretary Imad Ahmar and Attaché Mahmoud Obedi from Syria’s Kuala Lumpur embassy read out a statement on the channel declaring their “support for the Syrian people’s revolution against the tyrannical regime”.
But the defections so far are seen largely as symbolic and Assad has increasingly relied on a close circle of relatives and senior members of his minority Alawite sect dominating the ruling elite to maintain his grip on power.
CAMP HOSPITAL STORMED
Syrian activist Abu Yasser al-Shami said that his friends living in Yarmouk, a densely populated Palestinian refugee camp where 10 people were killed on Friday in shelling, had fled the area on Saturday morning after government troops swept in.
“Assad’s forces stormed al-Basel hospital in Yarmouk Camp and arrested many of the injured civilians,” he said over Skype.
When insurgents thrust into central parts of the capital in July, they were swiftly pushed back to southern districts, like Yarmouk, where there is a thinner state security presence.
Activists say Assad has been reluctant to use infantry as the army is made mostly of conscripts drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, many of whom seen as desertion risks. Some defected soldiers say morale is low in the barracks and that only officers from Assad’s Alawite sect are giving orders.
Residents complain that the army uses indiscriminate artillery and air strikes. Palestinians have been divided over whether or not to support Assad, but there are signs that more and more are now starting to back the uprising.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition watchdog based in London, said shells rained down on Hajar al-Aswad district, which neighbours Yarmouk, on Saturday.
It said 170 people were killed in bloodshed on Friday across the country, many of them in Damascus and northern Aleppo, where rebels say they control more than half of what is Syria’s most populous city and commercial centre.
The Observatory says more than 23,000 people have died in an uprising that has lasted more than 17 months. Around 200,000 Syrians have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
The conflict has edged ominously over Syrian borders into neighbours with sectarian tensions echoing those of Syria, where mainly Sunni insurgents are pitted against Assad’s Alawite community whose faith is an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
SPILLOVER TO IRAQ, LEBANON
As rebels fought government forces for an airfield and military base near the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal, Katyusha rockets hit a residential area of al Qaim in Iraq, smashing through a wall of one house and killing a girl inside.
“She was sitting on my lap just before we heard the rocket. I knew she was dead immediately after the explosion,” said Firas Attallah, the girl’s father, showing a bloodstained mattress amid the shattered glass in his home.
The Syrian war has caused jitters in Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government. Close to Bashar al-Assad’s ally, Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining calls for the Syrian leader to step down.
In smaller Lebanon, the issue of Syria is explosive and the Lebanese government has tip-toed around the topic. But former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri told the Al-Hayat newspaper on Saturday that Lebanon’s stance of dissociation from the Syrian conflict was shameful.
“The self-distancing policy allows the Syrian regime to shell Lebanese villages,” he said, referring to several incidents when Syrian forces have fired artillery across the borders at villages they say are harbouring insurgents.
Lebanon’s army forces raided a southern district of Beirut late on Friday and arrested a member of a powerful Shi’ite clan which has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 20 Syrians and a Turkish businessman.
The army arrested Hassan Meqdad, from the Meqdad clan, which abducted the men on Aug. 15 in what they said was a response to the capture of one of their kinsmen in Damascus by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Damascus continues to exert influence over is smaller neighbour and even had troops garrisoned in Lebanon until 2005.
The Meqdads are one of many armed groups in Lebanon which continue to exert power. The northern port city of Tripoli has seen sporadic clashes between Assad’s supporters and his foes.
“The (army) continues its search for a number of culprits who fled to various Lebanese regions and plans to maintain its work for the release of all hostages,” an army statement said. It added that large quantities of weapons and ammunition were seized during the raid on the Rweiss district of Beirut.
MOSCOW AND WESTERN POWERS AT LOGGERHEADS
The United States has accused Russia and China of effectively prolonging Syria’s bloodletting by blocking efforts at the U.N. Security Council to approve tough sanctions aimed at reining in the Assad government.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a summit of Pacific rim states that Moscow and Western powers remained at loggerheads over how to defuse the conflict – a diplomatic impasse in which Western officials say violence has flourished.
“Our U.S. partners prefer measures like threats, increased pressure and new sanctions against both Syria and Iran. We do not agree with this in principle,” Lavrov told reporters. Russia and Iran are Assad’s closest allies.
Lavrov said Russia expected the Security Council later this month to formally endorse an agreement brokered by former U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan which envisages a transitional governing authority for Syria.
Washington has angered Russia by going outside the United Nations to work with allies on the Syrian opposition’s behalf. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Lavrov it was possible to return to the United Nations if Moscow and Beijing were ready to forego their vetoes and back stronger measures.