Chopper Downed as Syria Capital Declared a ‘Disaster’
Damascus. Rebel fighters shot down a helicopter in a battleground town near Damascus on Thursday, a watchdog said, as Syria’s opposition declared parts of the capital a “disaster area.”
A series of explosions rocked Douma, just northeast of Damascus, shortly before the rebels downed the helicopter, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. State television said the aircraft had “crashed.”
The fighting raged as the Observatory, which relies on the accounts of activists on the ground, said the death toll in the 18-month uprising had surpassed 29,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians.
Meanwhile, diplomats from more than 60 nations and the Arab League were meeting in The Hague to toughen and improve coordination of sanctions against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“We need vigorous implementation,” Netherlands Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal told the opening of the “Friends of Syria” working group.
“Sanctions will only have an impact if they are carried out effectively. That is how we can make a difference.”
Overnight, UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned the Syrian government and rebels seemed intent on fighting to the bitter end, while saying the international body may offer a new strategy for peace.
And in the latest violence, helicopter gunships pounded Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in Damascus, as the political opposition added new claims of devastation to the southern district and in adjacent neighborhoods.
“Helicopter gunships are pounding civilian homes in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in southern Damascus,” said the Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition bloc.
“Many people have been killed or injured, but the violence of the shelling is making it difficult for activists in the area to document all their names,” it added.
“We call on the heroes of the [rebel] Free Syrian Army to intervene and to target the army of Assad” and to “open routes for the civilians to flee the catastrophic conditions they are living in.”
The SNC also renewed its call on the international community to intervene on behalf of the Syrian people, saying its “response to what is happening in the world’s oldest capital city [Damascus] has been completely insufficient.”
‘Bodies dumped in streets’
On Wednesday, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), a grassroots network of anti-regime activists, also spoke of the disastrous conditions in southern Damascus and pleaded for help from international aid organizations.
“Since July 15, these neighborhoods have suffered fierce army assaults, as well as indiscriminate shelling targeting civilian homes and shops.”
“People who fled the violence in search of safety have paid the highest price,” it added.
A Damascus-based activist who identified herself as Alexia said executions were rife in areas reclaimed by the army.
“People keep discovering bodies dumped on the streets.”
The army stormed a park in Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, southern Damascus, where families displaced from nearby districts had sought shelter, the Observatory said.
Violence also raged in Aleppo, Syria’s commercial hub in the north, where dozens were killed or wounded in fierce shelling, said the watchdog.
Speaking in New York on Wednesday, the UN secretary general said the conflict would top the agenda at next week’s UN General Assembly meeting even though there is no formal meeting on Syria.
“Unfortunately both sides, government and opposition forces, seem to be determined to see the end by military means,” Ban told reporters.
“I think military means will not bring an answer,” he said, calling for “political dialogue reflecting the genuine aspirations and will of the Syrian people.”
Ban said UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who just wrapped up his first visit to Syria and its neighbors since taking up his post earlier this month, may put a plan to Assad’s government after next week’s UN talks.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign minister of staunch Damascus ally Iran, had called for a Syrian solution to the conflict as he visited Damascus for talks with Assad on Wednesday.
And Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq, another Shiite-majority country in the Middle East, said on Thursday that the region was going through “dangerous” times as some governments spend large amounts of money on stirring sectarian strife.
He was apparently referring to energy-rich states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia that have allegedly provided assistance to the mainly-Sunni rebels fighting to oust Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
On Thursday, the Observatory said at least 20,755 civilians had been killed since the uprising erupted in March 2011, and that the overall toll was just over 29,000. The latest UN figures put the toll at more than 20,000.