"Damascus here we come" – Clashes intensify as rebels target Syrian capital


Rebels and troops clashed in northern Syria as regime foes set their sights on the capital as the rallying cry for weekly protests on Friday, while the EU prepared to slap new sanctions on Damascus.

“Damascus, here we come” was the slogan for anti-regime demonstrations on the day of weekly Muslim prayers, as posted by activists on their Facebook page, The Syrian Revolution 2011.

The army and rebels clashed in the Aazaz region near the Turkish border, killing at least three soldiers, and troops bombed a district of the flashpoint city of Homs in central Syria, opposition activists and monitors said.

In fierce clashes on Thursday, rebels and government forces both went on the offensive, after President Bashar al-Assad’s foes branded as toothless a UN Security Council call for peace.

The latest violence came a day after the regime launched attacks on a string of towns, while rebel fighters struck military posts in several provinces and announced a command structure to coordinate hit-and-run strikes in and around Damascus.

A bus, with women and children on board, was shot up close to the town of Sermin in the northwestern province of Idlib, near the border with Turkey, and 10 people died, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Opposition activist Milad Fadl said the civilians were headed for Turkey to escape when regime forces opened fire.

Government troops backed by tanks launched an assault on the northern border town of Binesh, sending thousands into flight towards the nearby towns of Taftanaz, Al-Maara and Sardana.

The escalation came just hours after the Security Council on Wednesday adopted a statement urging Assad and the opposition to implement “fully and immediately” a peace plan by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Annan’s plan calls for Assad to pull troops and heavy weapons out of protest cities, a daily two-hour humanitarian pause to hostilities, access to all areas affected by the fighting and a UN-supervised halt to all clashes.

Monitors say more than 9,100 people have been killed in the unrest that started with peaceful protests in March 2011 before turning into an armed revolt, faced with a brutal crackdown which has cost dozens of lives each day.

Adding to pressure on Damascus, Assad’s wife Asma, a Western-educated former banker and style icon, was expected Friday to face a European Union travel ban and asset freeze along with other family members, diplomats in Brussels said.

Asma al-Assad is on a list of 12 Syrians, including a handful of the president’s relatives, to be put to EU foreign ministers for a decision to bar them from travel and freeze their accounts across the 27-nation bloc.

The ministers, who in 12 previous rounds of sanctions against the Assad regime have already blacklisted some 150 firms and people, will also decide whether to add two extra firms to the list.

Assad himself was targeted by EU restrictive measures as far back as May. His wife, however, is a British national, and officials in London said an EU travel ban could not prevent her from entering Britain.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, meanwhile, has dismissed the UN statement, saying it offered “the regime the opportunity to push ahead with its repression in order to crush the revolt by the Syrian people.”

Before the evening offensive, 62 people were killed across the country on Thursday, including 35 civilians, the Observatory said, adding that 18 soldiers and nine army deserters also died in fierce clashes.

The reports could not be confirmed due to restrictions on the movements of foreign media.

On the rebel side, the Free Syrian Army said it had set up a military council to coordinate hit-and-run strikes around the capital, so far largely spared the worst violence.

After intense negotiations between major UN powers, Russia and China signed up to the Western-drafted text which also calls on Assad to work toward a democratic transition.

The Security Council on Friday still awaited a formal response from Syria to its call.

With a veiled warning of future action, it called on Assad and the opposition to work “towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately (Annan’s) initial six-point proposal.”

European countries want to press for a full, binding resolution, with French envoy Gerard Araud calling the statement “a small step by the Security Council in the right direction.”