Syria: UN observer mission extended; clashes continue

A fourth member of Syrian President Bashar Assad`s inner circle, national security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of wounds.

Zeenews Bureau

Damascus: The United Nations Security Council on Friday unanimously approved a resolution extending monitoring mission in Syria for 30 days, while leaving open the possibility of an extension.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops and tanks drove rebels from a Damascus neighbourhood where some of the heaviest of this week`s fighting in the capital left cars gutted and fighters` bodies in the streets.

Over 300 people were killed in a single day, activists said, as the military struggles to regain momentum after a stunning bombing against the regime`s leadership.

A fourth member of President Bashar Assad`s inner circle, national security chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, died of wounds he suffered in Wednesday`s bomb blast, which went off during a high level security meeting in Damascus, the government announced.

The bombing has been a resounding blow to Assad, killing his defence minister and his influential brother-in-law along with another security official, all central to directing the crackdown on the uprising against his rule.

The blast, six days of sustained fighting in neighbourhoods across the heart of the capital and the fall of several border posts into rebel hands have pointed to the unravelling of Assad`s grip on power amid an uprising that began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but became increasingly militarised as the opposition took up arms.

Regime troops regained control of the district of Midan in the southern part of Damascus on Friday and eagerly took journalists on a tour to prove it. But rebels launched new fighting in several other districts of the capital, activists said.

The fighting came as Muslims around much of the world began marking Islam`s annual Ramadan fast, abstaining from food or drink from sunrise to sunset. In a sign of the increasing sectarian split in Syria, the mainly Sunni opposition said it was starting the fast on Friday, along with Saudi Arabia and most Sunni-led Arab nations.

The regime, meanwhile, said it would begin on Saturday, as is its ally, Shi’ite-led Iran.

Battles involving troops bringing in tanks, helicopters and mortars have turned parts of Damascus into combat zones and sent thousands of Syrian families packed in cars streaming across the border into neighbouring Lebanon.

"Our heroic forces have completely cleansed the Midan area of the terrorist mercenaries," state TV announced, employing the term used by authorities to refer to rebels. It said authorities seized large quantities of weapons including machine guns, explosive belts, rocket-propelled grenades and communications equipment.

Also on Friday, the United Nations Security Council voted to extend the mission of some 300 unarmed observers in Syria for 30 days.

The team was meant to oversee a ceasefire that was supposed to begin in mid-April but never took hold. In recent weeks, violence has kept the observers largely confined to their hotels.

The vote extends the mission, which was set to expire on Friday, for 30 days, though it can be extended if Syrian troops stop using heavy weapons in populated areas and the overall level of violence drops.

On Thursday, Russia and China vetoed a resolution backed by Western nations that would have imposed new sanctions on Assad`s regime.
Besides the fighting in Damascus Friday, about a half-dozen rebels took over a Syrian border crossing near the Iraqi town of Qaim on Thursday, said Iraqi Army Brigadier General Qassim al-Dulaimi. There are four major border posts with Iraq.

Rebels overtook a Syrian Army outpost near the Syrian-Iraq border after clashes that killed 21 Syrian soldiers, he added.

In addition, amateur video posted online showed rebels taking over the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, where they stomped on portraits of Assad.

The funerals of the first three victims of the blast — Defence Minister Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defence Minister General Assef Shawkat and Hassan Turkmani, a former defence minister — were held on Friday in Syria amid "official presence”, state TV reported.

The state news agency said Vice-President Farouq al-Sharaa and General Fahd al-Freij, the new defence minister, laid wreaths on the men`s coffins.

Assad did not attend and has only appeared in a brief, soundless video clip aired on state TV since the bomb attack.

(With Agency inputs)