Syrian regime official shot dead in Damascus restaurant


Gunmen killed a government official in a Damascus restaurant, Syrian state media and activists reported Friday as regime troops and rebels fought fierce battles near the Lebanese border.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the official, Ali Ballan, was gunned down late Thursday in Mazzeh, a western neighborhood of the Syrian capital.

Ballan was head of public relations at the Ministry of Social Affairs and a member of Syria’s relief agency, the Observatory said.

The state-run SANA news agency said “terrorists” opened fire at Ballan while he was dining at the restaurant, killing him instantly. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists, denying there is an insurgency against President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Since Syria’s crisis began two years ago, Damascus has seen a number of assassinations of government and security officials, as well as regime supporters.

Last month, a suicide bomber struck a Damascus mosque, killing a top Sunni Muslim preacher and outspoken Assad supporter, Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti.

On July 18, a bomb inside a high-level crisis meeting in Damascus killed top security officials, including the defense minister and his deputy, who was also Assad’s brother-in-law, and wounded the interior minister. Rebels claimed responsibility for that blast.

Meanwhile, fierce fighting continued Friday near the contested town of Qusair in the central Syrian province of Hom, along the Lebanese border. On Thursday, government forces captured a town in the province and rebels seized a military base in the area.

The border region in Homs is strategic because it also links Damascus with the coastal enclave that is the heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot. The coast is home to the country’s two main seaports, Latakia and Tartus. Assad’s regime is dominated by his Alawites while the rebels are mostly from the country’s Sunni majority.

On Thursday, government forces captured the town of Abel, cutting the road between Homs and Qusair, said Rami Abdul-Rahman.

Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, added that the regime appears to be trying to lay a siege on Qusair. The town has seen clashes and anti-government protests since the early days of the crisis in Syria.

“The fighting is heavy and there are many deaths on both sides,” Abdul-Rahman said on Friday.

For their part, the rebels on Thursday captured the Dabaa military complex in Homs after weeks of fighting with government forces. Dabaa is a former air force base that has an airfield, which hasn’t been used since the fighting broke out more than two years ago.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said Syrian army warplanes bombarded the area around Qusair on Friday.

Both activist groups, the LCC and Abdul-Rahman’s Observatory, also reported heavy clashes in Damascus’s southern suburb of Daraya, which the regime has been trying to recapture for months.

The two groups also reported clashes in Aleppo, Idlib and Raqqa in the north, Deir el-Zour to the east and the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began.

Abdul-Rahman said rebels are attacking an army base near the town of Busra al-Harir in Daraa. A video aired on Al Arabiya TV showed rebels using a multiple rocket launcher, reportedly during the attack on Daraa base.

SANA also reported late Thursday that government troops shot down an air balloon that carried what the agency described as “American cameras” over the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province. It did not elaborate.

Syria’s crisis began with largely peaceful protests against Assad’s regime in March 2011 but eventually turned into a civil war. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far, according to the United Nations.