Air strike, kidnappings as Syria strife widens
A SYRIAN air strike killed 30 people in a rebel-held town on Wednesday, a local doctor said, and a mass kidnapping linked to Syria in neighbouring Lebanon raised the prospect of sectarian violence spreading.
That citizens of Turkey and Saudi Arabia, key supporters of the Sunni Muslim insurgency, were among those seized by Lebanese Shiites prompted Gulf states to urge citizens to leave Lebanon.
It also underscored how the Syrian conflict is dividing the region along sectarian lines as world powers remain deadlocked.
Dr Mohammad Lakhini said at a hospital in Azaz, in the north near the Turkish border, that scores of people there were wounded in the raid by President Bashar al-Assad’s air force. It reduced several houses to rubble and dozens of men clawed through the concrete and metal debris looking for survivors.
In videos posted by activists earlier yesterday, residents in Azaz — close to the major urban battleground of Aleppo — screamed and shouted "God is greatest" as they carried bloodied bodies from collapsed concrete buildings.
The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens had been killed. One activist in the town said at least 30 bodies had been found and rescuers were searching for more.
The video footage, which could not be immediately verified, showed crowds of residents wrestling with steel bars and pulling away a giant slab of concrete to reveal the dust-covered arm of a child. "This is a real catastrophe," said an activist who gave his name only as Anwar. "An entire street was destroyed."
Seven Lebanese hostages being held in Azaz were also wounded, with four others still missing, a rebel commander said.
"The building they were in was hit," rebel commander Ahmed Ghazali told the Lebanese news channel Al Jadeed. "We were able to remove seven from the wreckage. They are wounded, and some of the injuries are serious."
Mr Assad’s forces have increasingly used helicopter gunships and warplanes against the lightly-armed insurgents — elements in fresh accusations of war crimes levelled by United Nations (UN) human rights investigators yesterday.
The Syrian civil war has taken on overtly sectarian overtones, with most rebels belonging to the Sunni Muslim majority, fighting against government forces rooted in Mr Assad’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Regional powers are being drawn into the fight, with Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebels and Shiite Iran backing Mr Assad’s government. Fighting between Sunnis and Shiites lay behind long civil wars in Syria’s neighbours Iraq and Lebanon, and the West fears the violence could spread.
In Lebanon, gunmen belonging to a powerful Shiite clan abducted more than 20 men, including at least one Turk, one Saudi and several Syrian anti-Assad fighters, in retaliation for the capture of one of their kinsmen by rebels in Damascus.
The incident, in an area of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah Shiite militants long allied to Mr Assad and supported by Iran, raised the prospect of Syria’s sectarian violence spilling over to its neighbour. Mass kidnapping was a perennial tactic in Lebanon’s own sectarian civil war from 1975-1990.
Members of the Meqdad clan said they had carried out the kidnappings in retaliation for the capture of Hassan al-Meqdad by anti-Assad rebels in Damascus days earlier.
They threatened to carry out more abductions of Qataris, Turks and Saudis. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates told their citizens to leave Lebanon — potentially dealing a blow to Beirut’s reviving tourist business.
In Damascus, a bomb exploded in the car park of a hotel used by UN monitors, but several military buildings are also in the vicinity and it was not clear what the target was. No UN staff were hurt in the blast which set a fuel tanker ablaze.
State media said three people were wounded in the bombing and several rebels killed or captured in a separate gunbattle with security forces in the district of Mezze.
UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos, on a mission to seek more access for aid deliveries, was meeting European Union officials in Damascus when the bomb went off.
She herself was unable to reach the town of Douma, a trouble spot just north of the capital, due to bombardment.
As the violence intensified, UN human rights investigators accused forces loyal to Mr Assad of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
They said rebels had also committed war crimes, but the violations "did not reach the gravity, frequency and scale" of those by state forces and the pro-Assad shabbiha militia.
"The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that government forces and the shabbiha had committed the crimes against humanity of murder and of torture, war crimes and gross violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, including unlawful killing, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, indiscriminate attack, pillaging and destruction of property," said the report by the independent investigators led by Paulo Pinheiro.
Opposition sources say 18,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Mr Assad erupted in March last year. The bloodshed has divided regional and world powers, making peace efforts fruitless and paralysing the UN Security Council.
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