Hundreds flee as UN says Syria violence spiralling

AFP , Thursday 19 Jul 2012

Residents flee Syrian capital Damascus after bombing, regime vows to stop exercising 'restraint' in its operations after of its 4 top security chiefs are killed

This July 18, 2012 satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe of the Qabun neighborhood in Damascus, Syria. The satellite imagery shows a tank on 6th Rishreen road in the lower left portion of the image as well as a smoking building on the feeder portion of the exchange. Vehicle tracks and possible rubble are visible on the road just above the smoking building. Five additional tanks or armored vehicles are located elsewhere in Qabun, encircling the neighborhood, (Photo: AP).

Hundreds of people were fleeing Damascus flashpoints on Thursday after the army warned of a violent clashes with rebels following a bomb blast that killed three security chiefs, witnesses said.

Major General Robert Mood, head of the UN monitoring mission, meanwhile warned that Syria was not on track for peace and that the violence was spiralling, as President Bashar al-Assad appeared to have gone to ground.

The military gave residents 48 hours to leave areas where clashes are taking place between security forces and rebels pushing their "Damascus Volcano" offensive.

"These extremely violent clashes should continue in the next 48 hours to cleanse Damascus of terrorists by the time Ramadan begins" on Friday, a security source told AFP, referring to the Muslim holy fasting month.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights watchdog said that in the western district of Mazzeh alone, hundreds of people were on the move, "fearing a large-scale operation by regime troops."

Residents also fled the southern district of Tadamon and the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmuk, it said.

The developments come a day after a bombing in the city killed three top security officials, including the defence minister and Assad's brother-in-law, in a severe blow to the regime.

"There is an escalation by the Syrian regime to avenge the operation that targeted the (security chiefs)," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory.

"The rebels have also escalated (the violence) to reap the fruits of the attack, and to try to finish off the battle" for Damascus, he added. "Clashes and shelling have engulfed Syria, and they are taking place day and night."

The whereabouts of Assad are still not known and he has not commented on the bombing or appeared in public since the attack.

However, he was cited by state media as appointing Fahd al-Freij defence minister to replace Daoud Rajha, who was among those killed when the National Security headquarters was targeted.

State media have yet to distribute images of the aftermath, unlike on previous occasions when there have been attacks in the capital.

The deaths on Wednesday of Rajha, Assad's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat and General Hassan Turkmani, head of the regime's crisis cell, marked the first time in the 16-month revolt that Assad's inner circle has been targeted.

"The army has so far exercised restraint in its operations, but after the attack, it has decided to use all the weapons in its possession to finish the terrorists off," the security source said.

"The army has told residents to stay away from combat zones, as the terrorists are trying to use residents as human shields."

The Damascus blast came on one of the deadliest days in the conflict.

At least 214 people -- 124 civilians, 62 soldiers and 28 rebels died on Wednesday, the Britain-based Observatory said, revising an earlier toll. That figure did not include the three regime members.

"It pains me to say, but we are not on the track for peace in Syria, and the escalations we have witnessed in Damascus over the past few days is a testimony to that," General Mood, head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, said in a statement to reporters.

The deteriorating situation in the capital comes as the West and Russia and China prepare for a showdown later Thursday over a draft UN resolution calling for sanctions against Syria.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon and international envoy Kofi Annan called on the Security Council to take strong action, but Russia and China are expected to veto the resolution.

Ban said there was an "extreme urgency" for action to halt the violence which activists say has killed more than 17,000 people.

Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, said the council must take "decisive" action after he persuaded the major powers to postpone the vote originally set for Wednesday.

"The deteriorating situation in Syria underscores the extreme urgency for all sides to stop armed violence in all its forms, implement the six-point plan and move swiftly towards a political dialogue," Ban said in a statement.

Annan "urged members of the Security Council to unite and take concerted and strong action that would help stem the bloodshed in Syria and build momentum for a political transition," said his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi.

Wednesday's attack that also wounded Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar and General Hisham Ikhtiyar, head of National Security, has been claimed by the rebel Free Syrian Army as well as another group, the Brigade of Islam.

"The traitors, agents and mercenaries are deluding themselves if they think that Syria will bow to this strike, even if it hurts," the ruling party's mouthpiece, Al-Baath newspaper, said on Thursday.

White House National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said Assad was "losing control," pointing to "increasing" defections and a "strengthened and more united" opposition.

British Prime Minister David Cameron told reporters in Afghanistan it was time for Assad to go.

"It is time for transition in this regime... but if there isn't transition it's quite clear there is going to be civil war," he said.

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