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Syria Live Coverage: "94 Killed" in Regime Airstrike on Bakery Queue

See also Syria Video Discussion: The Dwindling Resources of the Regime (Al Jazeera English)
Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: Starving in Aleppo

2103 GMT: The Local Coordination Committees report that 115 people have been killed today, including 35 in Damascus and its suburbs, 28 in Homs Province, 18 in Aleppo Province, and 16 in Hama Province.

2017 GMT: Colonel Abdel-Jabbar Oqaidi, the head of the insurgent military council in Aleppo Province, has spoken to Reuters of the change in strategy from fighting regime forces in the cities to surrounding bases in the countryside:

At the beginning...we were forced to attack the forces in the districts to kick them out so that they do not harm civilians.

After achieving fighting experience, we went back to the countryside to liberate the big military bases. These bases are fortified with tanks, rockets, artillery, mortars, in addition airplanes. The siege...cuts off the supply lines to these bases and most importantly it helps elements to defect.

Oqaidi said the remaining obstacle for the insurgents was Assad's warplanes:

We have no problem except for the air force. We're used to the tanks fighting and their shelling, we have no problem except for the air force.

We're used to taking over military bases that have tanks and APCs (armored personnel carriers) but we haven't been used to take over control yet of airplanes and God willing we'll have control of them soon.

Oqaidi estimated that the regime has less than 100 functional planes left.

1823 GMT: Al Jazeera English reports that two cargoes of Russian diesel, the first significant deliveries in months, have arrived.

Both shipments were transported from Russia on Italian tankers, but it is unclear who was behind the them.

The shipments provided about 42,000 tonnes of gasoil worth close to $40 million.

There have been shortages of diesel and other fuels since the European Union introduced tighter sanctions in March. The measures do not expressly ban all shipments of fuel but are aimed at a list of companies connected to the Assad regime.

1616 GMT: There are many questions and much speculation about what weapon was used in Homs yesterday. See our separate analysis Was "Toxic Gas" Used in Homs on Sunday? for more.

A cautious, preliminary, report by private security company Osen-Hunter reaches the following conclusion, drawing from the English translation in the video below:

While by no means certain and harkening back to caveats mentioned earlier, information on hand suggests that the chemical agent used to kill 7 in Homs, Syria, was likely Chlorine Gas, Cyanogen Chloride (CK) or Phosgene Gas (CG). This is a preliminary estimate that will likely change as more evidence comes in.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera English has updated their earlier report to include this possibility:

A doctor treating patients subsequently said the gas seemed to be a concentrated form of tear gas that has not been used in Homs before. Inhaling large amounts can lead to suffocation and death, he said.

1603 GMT: Yesterdays regime airstrike in Halfaya has been condemned by UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Alistair Burt:

I am appalled by emerging reports of the brutal shelling and killing of civilians in Halfaya in Hama province yesterday.

Opposition groups report that over 60 people were killed while queuing for bread with more believed to be buried in the rubble.

If verified, this would be the most recent in a long line of human rights violations and abuses committed by the Syrian regime, which continues to wage a remorseless war against its own people.

However, Burt's comments offer no indication of any significant shift in the UK position towards military intervention or armed support to the rebels:

The attack highlights the urgent need for a political transition and end to the violence, and for those responsible for these appalling acts to be held to account.

1436 GMT: Opposition member Mohamed Sarmini has claimed that UN Lakhdar Brahimi, in his meeting with President Assad today, re-presented a plan for a negotiated solution that was first proposed after an international conference in Geneva in June.

Sarmini, who said he had spoken with Brahini's aides, claimed the proposal would temporarily leave Assad in power while curbing his authority and creating a transitional government.

“It does not meet the demands of the revolution,” Mr. Sarmini said.

1356 GMT: Jihad al-Makdisi, the former Foreign ministry spokesman who reportedly defected from the regime on 2 December, is in the US, according to Guardian journalist Martin Chulov.

Asked on Twitter about his source, Chulov replied, "There is, but I can't disclose it. The information is rock solid." He added, "Brits in Lebanon not involved, but may have been elsewhere. Was definitely US-led.".

Shortly after al-Makdisi left Syria, there were reports that he was en route to America. At the time, State Department spokesman Mark Toner denied such reports, saying: "We believe Jihad Makdisi is in London, we cannot confirm. Not aware of him reaching out to US embassy."

1310 GMT: Queue for gas canisters in the Damascus suburb of Douma:

And for water in Aleppo:

1150 GMT: State media has put out a brief reaction from President Assad after his meeting today with United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi --- the President supports "any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland's sovereignty and independence".

1135 GMT: State news agency SANA has finally offered a reaction to Sunday's mass killing of civilians, reportedly in a bakery queue, in Halfaya in Hama Province.

"An armed terrorist group attacked the town of Halfaya, committing crimes against the population, killing many women and children," SANA claimed, continuing that the Syrian army intervened during the assault and "killed and wounded many terrorists".

The agency asserted, "Terrorists then shot video images to accuse the Syrian army when the international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Syria."

1118 GMT: Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the opposition National Coalition, has dismissed any value in the talks between United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and President Assad.

Al-Khatib said "any political solution to save the system is unacceptable", as Assad had to leave office. He added a reference to Sunday's events, The statement added: "The Halfaya massacre is a message to the Syrian people: either you die or accept the slavery imposed on you."

1034 GMT: United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has met President Assad in Damascus.

Brahimi offered only brief comments to journalists that he and Assad had discussed the situation in Syria, that he had given his views on how to solve the crisis, and that conditions in the country were still poor.

0950 GMT: As we post a video feature, "The Dwindling Resources of the Regime", Reuters posts an article on the Syrian economy with the paradox, "Syria's War-Battered Pound Floats on Rebel Funds":

The pound is trading at 94 to the dollar on the black market compared to 48 before the uprising --- a steep fall but less calamitous than might be expected given the devastating loss of state revenues and long term damage wrought by the conflict.

It hit a record low of 105 to the dollar earlier this year before recovering slightly, even allowing the central bank to recoup some losses from its heavy intervention by buying back dollars as they eased slightly, bankers say.

A banker in a Damascus-based subsidiary of a regional bank said cash flows to the Deir al-Zor rebel commander and his comrades were partly responsible for the pound's resilience.

"All the money sent to the opposition comes in foreign currency and this is supplying the market with dollars and keeping the pound afloat," he said.

The article also notes the less dramatic explanation of support from Iran, Russia, and Iraq for the regime. However, it indicates that --- irrespective of the props from the insurgency and foreign backers --- Damascus will not be able to sustain itself in the long-term:

At one stage last year, Syria's central bank supplied dollars relatively freely to stabilise the exchange rate; bankers estimated it spent an average $500 million every month.

It also sought to manage a multi-tier exchange regime as part of its efforts to stem the decline ---including one for importers buying raw materials and another set daily by the Central Bank to cover other financial transactions.

But the intervention came at a price. Syrian officials say Central Bank reserves stood at around $18 billion before the crisis, and regional bankers say those reserves have diminished by at least a half to around $8 billion.

As the crisis deepens, authorities' ability to maintain the pound's relative stability is being strained, with signs that the central bank is less able to intervene effectively, several exchange dealers contacted by telephone from Damascus said.

"The Central Bank is no longer pumping dollars. The supply is low and the demand is high from the black market, so the dollar has gone up," Wael Halawani, a money changer in the main Seven Lakes business area in central Damascus said.

In the last month alone, as the conflict reached the edge of Assad's power base in Damascus, the pound shed 15 percent. Bankers said the absence of central bank response was notable.

0731 GMT: Some of those questioning if the Halfaya mass killing was an attack by the regime on civilians are pointing to a 12-minute clip of the aftermath of the airstrike.

They make two points: 1) almost all the victims are men between the ages of 18 and 50, indicating that those killed were insurgents or, at least, were not queueing for bread; 2) the curious moment at 9:43 when a piece of flatbread is put on a blood pool indicates the surviving men were trying to stage this as an attack outside a bakery.

0715 GMT: Claims circulated through Sunday of the first gas attack by the regime on civilians. Activists in Homs claimed seven people died in the al-Bayada neighbourhood after they inhaled a poisonous gas sprayed by Syrian forces. Videos on YouTube showed the vicitims.

"The situation is very difficult. We do not have enough facemasks. We don't know what this gas is but medics are saying it's something similar to Sarin gas," Raji Rahmet Rabbou, an activist in Homs, said.

Others were cautious over the claim:

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said today. "I do not believe Syria would use chemical weapons. It would be a political suicide for the government if it does."

0645 GMT: The Local Coordiation Committees claim 208 people were killed on Sunday, including the 94 in Halfaya and 51 in Damascus and its suburbs.

0625 GMT: We opened Sunday writing about the Syrians at risk of death from starvation, because of a lack of bread. Soon we were writing about dozens who had been killed because they were waiting for that bread, slain by a regime airstrike on a bakery queue in Halfaya in Hama Province.

The bodies in graphic videos testified to a mass killing. The opposition Local Coordination Committees put the toll at 94, although activists in Halfaya said it was not possible at this point to give a precise number.

The context for the incident was the capture of a ring of towns by insurgents, including Halfaya, last week as they advanced on Hama city. The Syrian military, unable to counter-attack on the ground, followed the pattern --- set in other insurgent-held locations in the north and in the Damascus suburbs --- of pressuring the town with airstrikes. Mousab al-Hamadee, an activist in the suburbs of Hama, confirmed the heavy shelling of the last week and said, "!The airstrikes were a message from the regime. They came as a punishment for the residents of [Halfaya]."

It is unclear if Sunday's killing was from a wayward shell or missile, fired at an insurgent position, or if it was effectively a "terror strike" on civilians, , as al-Hamadee claimed.

Meanwhile, the civilians because deliberate or "accidental" target because of the humanitarian effects of the military situation. Supplies to Halfaya have been disrupted as the insurgents ejected the regime's forces,. Another activist said, "We hadn't received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children."

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