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Syria (and Beyond) Live Coverage: The Battle of Rastan

Al Jazeera English's report, with striking amateur footage, on the fighting in Rastan in Syria

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1932 GMT: Syria. Another bloody day in Syria - the LCCS reports that 63 people have been killed today nationwide:

33 martyrs in Idlib, 8 martyrs in Homs, 7 martyrs in Deir Ezzor, 5 martyrs in Hama, 4 martyrs in Damascus Suburbs "Qalamoun - Qudsaya - Douma - Al-Tal", 4 Martyrs in Banyas, one martyr in Hasakeh and one martyr in Daraa "Daeel".

1924 GMT: Syria. Residents of Deir Ez Zor reported on Twitter that regime armored vehicles moved into the city in force today. Several of them were harassing residents, and security forces were making widespread arrests. The driver of the BMP vehicle in this video decided that it was in the best interest of national security to run over parked cars.

The strategy didn't work - as you'll find out if you watch to the end of the video:

1912 GMT: Syria. We haven't focused heavily on the news that the Syrian National Council has re-elected Burhan Ghalioun as President for the next three months. Frankly, the infighting among the Syrian political infrastructure has greatly diminished both the SNC's effectiveness, and its importance. It appears that we're not the only ones reaching this conclusion today:

What does this mean? If the international community is pinning their hopes on an established political hierarchy inside the opposition, then the international community will likely be disappointed. However, with no sign of foreign intervention on the horizon, I question the importance of the SNC in general. The protests in the streets are growing, and they are not run by Syrian expatriates, or even national leaders inside Syria. The Free Syrian Army seems better organized than ever, despite the fighting within the SNC. In the meantime, it appears that the Syrian opposition will continue to erode the regime's power, whether the Syrian politicians are on the same page or not.

1853 GMT: Syria. Earlier we reported that the offensive in Al Rastan is part of a regional effort. Tonight, there are reports of heavy gunfire in Qusayr, south of Homs. We also suggested that the Free Syrian Army was making moves near Deir Ez Zor, and tonight there are reports of heavy gunfire in Al Bukamal. Yesterday we reported that the Syrian regime may be making moves against possible FSA action in the Damascus suburbs, and tonight there are reports of gun battles in Daraya. The LCC, which has posted some of these reports, also shares this video of gunfire in Azaz, north of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey:

In other words, in nearly every key FSA stronghold there are reports of evening clashes. We don't know the size and significance of these evens yet. These incidents could be isolated, but they're certainly worth watching.

1514 GMT: Syria. Reuters has spoken to a UN monitor who reports that there were no injuries to UN personnel in Khan Skaykhoun, but the UN monitors are currently stranded in the area.

"We went to observe and after a while shooting occurred," he told Reuters by telephone, adding that the shooting was followed by the blast which damaged the car.

The report seems to give credence to the original claim that the explosion was the work of regime elements.

1429 GMT: Syria. More info on the attack in Khan Shaykhoun that led to the injury of UN monitors...

An activist tweets this unverified video:

We'd note that there are no signs of blood, and the video is highly chaotic. It's possible that these were warning shots.

However, The Guardian has spoken to an activist who supplies context. According to Activist Mousab Alhamadee, the crowds around the observers were very large, and the Free Syrian Army troops (seen in the video posted at 1319 GMT) were deployed to protect the crowds. The Syrian army then opened fire, and the UN crew was hit. Alhamadee says that at least one UN observer was injured, and we have seen video of perhaps several dozen wounded, or killed, protesters, though we are awaiting official casualty counts:

1418 GMT: Syria. We've been following reports that a UN vehicle was hit by a shell in Khan Shaykhoun. This video appears to show the moment the explosion occurred.

Some things to note - there does not appear to be the sound of an artillery shell or rocket immediately before the explosion. That suggests that it may have been a tank round, which usually doesn't make that sound, or the explosion was not made by a shell at all. We'd caution, however, that we are by no means experts in explosive ordinance.

1405 GMT: Syria. Yesterday there was a rumor - that a convoy of Free Syrian Army soldiers had left Iraq (presumably after picking up weapons) and had moved from Al Bukamal towards Deir Ez Zor (map of the area). This video, shared by one of our readers, reportedly showed part of that convoy:

We didn't think too much of the claim - it was unconfirmed, and Deir Ez Zor has not been on our radar screen for several weeks. However, there is news that the city was heavily shelled last night. Then there have been several videos, posted today, that reportedly show regime tanks racing towards the desert in the area, perhaps to strengthen regime positions against a potential FSA offensive:

As I postulated in my analysis of the new FSA offensive in Homs, the regime really does appear nervous. However, these rumors of FSA action in the Deir Ez Zor region, a region with growing anti-regime sentiment and an area long ignored by the Assad regime, could give Assad plenty of reason to be nervous.

1341 GMT: Syria. We've posted a separate analysis of yesterday's developments in Al Rastan.

See also Syria Analysis: Insurgent Success in the Heart of An Occupied Country

1333 GMT: Syria. Large student demonstrations were held today in Deir Ez Zor as the UN monitors arrived in the city.

However, yesterday there were reports of shelling, and several videos showed extensive damage in the streets there. Also, a 17 year old was reportedly shot and killed by a sniper bullet in the city today.

1319 GMT: Syria. A UN vehicle in Khan Shaykhoun appears to have been hit by one of the shells that fell today (see previous update):

No word yet from the UN.

1309 GMT: Syria. The Local Coordinating Committees share a graphic and disturbing report, a video of perhaps a dozen or more civilians entering a field hospital in Khan Shaykhoun, in Idlib province between Ma'arrat al Nouman and Hama (MAP). The report says that the town was shelled while the UN observers were present. Observers have been met by large crowds of anti-regime protesters in many towns across the country, and appear to be increasingly under attack as they gather to great the observers.

1256 GMT: Syria. The election results are in and they mean...something? Maybe nothing? So far, the results have been confusing to sort. The Guardian reports:

The official news agency, Sana, names the 250 winning candidates – though without saying which party (if any) they represent, or how many votes they got. There are 30 women among the winners.

Sana reported earlier that there had been re-runs of the ballot in 18 centres "due to some violations of the rules of the elections general law".

According to the Higher Committee for Elections, 5,186,957 Syrians voted, out of 10,118,519 eligible electors – giving an official turnout figure of 51.26%. This is slightly less than in the 2007 election when the regime claimed a turnout of 56%.

Guardian goes on to cite a Reuters report that the regional breakdown for turnout was not supplied, so it's impossible to see the numbers in the hardest hit areas of the country. Reuters also takes issue with the government's numbers:

Voting in the capital Damascus last week appeared patchy. At one polling station, where authorities said 137 people voted in the first three hours, foreign journalists saw only three people cast their ballots in a 40-minute period.

1242 GMT: Syria. This picture, part of a series from Al Rastan today, shows that the Syrian military has paid a high-price in trying, and failing, to retake positions lost yesterday in Al Rastan.

However, the civilians appear to be paying the price in the town of Al Rastan, as the regime has reopened its shelling campaign today:

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for taking us to the afternoon.

1205 GMT: Syria. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has told his ruling Justice and Development Party's Parliamentary group that the crisis in Syria is the product of the regime's failure to respond to people's demands, rather than sectarianism: “Those who consider the troubles in Syria a sectarian fight certainly fail at humanity. We always stand on the side of justice and oppose oppressors. We never look at the ethnic background or sect of the oppressed ones."

1200 GMT: Iraq. Human Rights Watch claims continued abuses of detention by Iraqi authorities:

Iraq’s government has been carrying out mass arrests and unlawfully detaining people in the notorious Camp Honor prison facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, based on numerous interviews with victims, witnesses, family members, and government officials. The government had claimed a year ago that it had closed the prison, where Human Rights Watch had documented rampant torture.

Since October 2011 Iraqi authorities have conducted several waves of detentions, one of which arresting officers and officials termed “precautionary.” Numerous witnesses told Human Rights Watch that security forces have typically surrounded neighborhoods in Baghdad and other provinces and gone door-to-door with long lists of names of people they wanted to detain. The government has held hundreds of detainees for months, refusing to disclose the number of those detained, their identities, any charges against them, and where they are being held.

1100 GMT: Syria. The opposition Syrian National Council has re-elected Burhan Ghalioun as President, but only for a three-month term, at a meeting in Rome on Tuesday.

Ghalioun, an academic in Paris, has been leader since the SNC's creation in August 2011, but he has faced criticism for being out of touch with the opposition inside Syria and for failing to unify the SNC.

Ghalioun has the backing of the Gulf States and France, who see him as a consensus figure in the group.

George Sabra, another liberal who is an ally of Syria's top dissident Riad al-Turk, was second.

0855 GMT: Palestine. Khadija Patel, writing for The Daily Maverick, considers the politics around the ongoing hunger strike of up to 2500 detainees in Israeli jails, "Palestinian Prisoners on Hunger Strike: Who Exactly Represents Them?":

First a Palestinian minister announced that a deal had been reached with Israel to end a weeks-long hunger strike by hundreds of prisoners. Then, various activists countered assertions of the reported deal, claiming the Palestinian Authority actually did not represent the hunger strikers and had no right to make such announcements on their behalf. The only certainty is that there is a crisis in the Palestinian leadership.

0850 GMT: Syria. Asia Times Online reports, "Syrian Kurds Look to Iraq for Safety":

As of April 14, more than 80 Syrian Kurds a day were crossing into Dohuk province, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Most were coming from Syria's poorer Kurdish northeastern provinces of Qamishli and Hasakeh. About 1,300 Syrian Kurdish men, women and children were living in tents in Domiz, the main refugee camp for new arrivals, near the city of Dokuk.

0845 GMT: Syria. People wounded in the crackdown on dissent in Syria, as well as medical personnel trying to treat them, risk arrest and even torture, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said Tuesday.

An official said MSF doctors, after failing to get permission to work in the country, entered clandestinely and managed to reach the rebel strongholds of Homs and Idlib, where "patients and medical personnel are hunted down and run the risk of being arrested and tortured."

"We are in a very particular situation in Syria: no impartial humanitarian aid can be brought in, and the harassment of the wounded and doctors is part of the regime's police strategy," Dounia Dekhili said.

"According to Syrian doctors, it is at least as dangerous to be caught caring for the wounded as being caught with a weapon in your hand," an MSF surgeon reported.

0833 GMT: Syria. Voter turnout in last week's legislative elections in Syria, with final results still to be confirmed, stands at 51.26%, Khalaf al-Azzawi, head of the electoral commission, said today.

Al-Azzawi added that 30 women had been elected to the 250-seat parliament.

0830 GMT: Syria. The Local Co-ordination Committees in Syria report that 11 people have died so far today.

0515 GMT: Syria. A Monday night protest in Harasta, northeast of Damascus:

0500 GMT: Syria. The reports started early on Monday about a developing situation in Rastan, a town of strategic importance near Homs and near the Damascus-to-Aleppo highway.

The first news was that nine people had died in shelling by regime forces. Then came the unconfirmed claimed that at least 23 soldiers had been killed in fighting with insurgents. 

The number of casualties remained unclear --- it still is --- but by afternoon, we were hearing that the Free Syrian Army had repelled a major attack by President Assad's military. Not only but the FSA, in their own assault, had taken several forward operation bases of the regime's forces.

We await the unfolding of events today, but EA's James Miller offers an assessment to monitor:

Every second that Rastan is not retaken is a major victory. And there's more --- the Free Syrian Army has been working the towns north of Homs since Thursday. I don't think Talbiseh has fallen, but there were attacks there as well, and last week there was also fighting in Qusayr, south of Homs.

The regime will try to retake Rastan, but if either Talbiseh or Qusayr falls before that happens, then the regime is in serious trouble.


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