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Thursday
Jan172013

Syria Live Coverage: Who Bombed Aleppo University?

Claimed footage of shelling of Homs today


2110 GMT: What Happened in Haswiyeh? With Bill Neely's arrival in Haswiyeh (see previous update below) we have also received several new updates today. First, let's recap what has happened over the last week.

Two days ago rumors began circulating of a "massacre" in the villages of Hawiyeh,just north of Homs, as well as dozens killed in Houla to the west of Homs. These rumors came at the same time as confirmed reports of heavy shelling of Homs itself, as well as the cities to the north (Talbiseh, Al Rastan). See our initial coverage here, which includes many links to videos and claimed eyewitness claims.

A problem was immediately apparent. The claims made by some activists included beheadings, knife attacks, and summary executions. But the evidence didn't initially show any of this. Instead, it was obvious that the villages had been heavily bombed, likely by aircraft but also possibly by tanks and artillery, and the reports of knife-wielding shabiha and bodies hanging in trees were exaggerated. But with rumors such as these, it was still important to keep an open mind to the possibility that these reports had some merit.

Today, we received an additional report - containing many details, as well as some videos. First, here's the summary provided by the "Homs up-to-date" Facebook page:

Reports emerging from Husweyeh massacre behold such intolerable pain of an extremely appalling massacre committed against 13 families according to eyewitnesses. The village is located near AlQusour district and is about 5 kilometers away from Homs city center [to the north of the city]. Husweyeh's families are well-known for being farmers; the village has a population of about 1,500 civilians only and recently had more families settling in from disaster-stricken areas and invaded districts, such as Deir Ba'lbeh district and else. The village includes Sunnis, Christians, and Alawties, but the massacre is proven to be purely driven by sectarianism since all the families massacred are Sunni families only....

On Tuesday, 15/1/2013, the regime's military security forces entered the village 12:00 p.m. [Syria time] and arbitrarily arrested a number of men, amongst them martyr Abdul Haseeb Deyab, Imam of Al Tayyar mosque in Husweyyeh village. At 1:00 p.m. [Syria time], some of the detainees got released. At 2:00 p.m. [Syria time], 2 buses {well-known by civilians for being used to drive Shabiha (thugs)}, 4 other security forces buses, and 2 armoured vehicles arrived to the area and parked near Al Boushi factory for ceramics.

The military security forces spread...

Afterwards, some young men were extrajudicially executed in these houses then burnt in one house, which is the house of Abu Mashhour Shehab Deyab. They then moved into Al Ghaloul orchards and executed all the men, women, and children their found there from Al Ghaloul family. Third station was Al Deyab farmlands, where they also executed the whole family and burnt their corpses. Their last station was the farmlands right beside Al Deyab farmlands, where they killed more than 17 members of Al Mahbani family there.

Few of the young men were able to escape as they climbed on trees and hid in orchards. But the regime's Shabiha (thugs) caught them, executed them and tied them to trees. Most of the eyewitnesses recounts said that the gold women were wearing was robbed after they were disgustingly humiliated whilst others were kidnapped/arrested and no one know anything about them nor about how many are they. House and commercial shops were looted too.

Up until now, 2:30 p.m, 105 martyrs have been documented from all these families executed.

The report also lists the names of many of the dead. Suspiciously, a video that claimed to show the burnt bodies of the victims has been "removed by the user."

Sensational reports continue to pour in, often from high profile sources like Zaid Benjamin, a journalist:

And the Telegraph:

Syrian opposition sources from Homs said loyalist militiamen backed by government troops swept through the hamlet of Haswiyeh just north of the city, torching houses and slashing victims to death with knives.

The Britain-based opposition group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "whole families were executed", with one family losing up to 32 members, including women and children. The death count of the attack, which was said to have started on Tuesday, varied from 32 to more than 106. Youssef al-Homsi, an activist based in Homs, said at least 100 people were killed, including dozens of women and children, and sent The Associated Press a list of 100 names said to have been killed, including 15 women and 10 children.

Two glaring problems remain. Just like several other claimed massacres in the Homs area, the LCC has yet to mention any massacre, and sufficient video evidence of a massacre has not surfaced. Though it is clear that the area has been heavily bombed, Bill Neely has not provided sufficient evidence of such claims. He saw blood and some human remains, but it doesn't sound like he witnessed anything that would verify these kinds of numbers. Neely does report, however, that he has spoken to residents of the town who make such claims, and he concludes simply:

I cannot say for sure who did what to whom. But it's clear many people died in Homs. Dozens.

All seem agreed on that. The common figure was around 30. I even got the names of families who had been killed; members of the the Hamza family, the Khoulis and Ghalouls.

The local men I talked to were scared. They had been through something bad. Many had lost loved ones.

On Twitter, he also raises the possibility that Jabhat al Nusra is responsible:

So what's really going on?

Let's step back and focus on what we know for sure. Homs is a mess. It has suffered nearly 13 full months of frequent shelling, bombing, and gunfire. Its only remaining populace consists of Syria's poorest and most helpless citizens, and the heavily committed fighters and militia of both the rebel fighters and the Assad supporters. It's villages and neighborhoods are among the most ethnically and religiously ghettoized in all of Syria. Fear, distrust, and tension grow deep. It's also been host to many massacres in the past. In other words, it's prime real-estate for a potential sectarian explosion.

But all that fear and tension also makes it predisposed to rumors. Communication travels slower, as many are often afraid to take to the streets, especially when the bombs are falling or the gunshots ringing out.

But with each passing "massacre" claimed by residents who have a terrible track record, the media needs to be more careful, more skeptical. The facts tell us that the last 3 days have been deadly, extremely deadly, but calling it a "massacre" elevates that death above what we've seen elsewhere in Syria, where things have been nearly as bad, or worse, over the last few days.

Bill Neely is doing a great job of focusing on the facts and sticking to what we know. Beyond this, the media sensationalism isn't helping anybody get to the bottom of what is really happening.

2014 GMT: The Mass Killing in Haswiyeh. Bill Neely of Britain's ITV reaches the area of Haswiyeh, near Homs, where scores of people were reportedly killed earlier this week.

Neely says all those he met agreed "dozens" were slain, but beyond that is a swirl of claims. There is a report from a resident that opposition fighters carried out killings, while other men say the attackers "wore black uniforms and had headbands with Jihadi slogans".

1828 GMT: Tensions Growing Between FSA & Al Nusra. Martin Chulov is back in Aleppo, and he reports that tensions between some rebel groups and JAbhat al Nusra are reaching a breaking point, as rebel fighters say that the suspected Al Qaeda affiliate is "hijacking" the revolution:

"We will fight them on day two after Assad falls," one senior commander told the Guardian. "Until then we will no longer work with them."

In recent weeks Liwa al-Tawheed and other militias who form part of the overall Free Syrian Army brand have started conducting their own operations without inviting al-Nusra to join them.

A raid on an infantry school north of Aleppo in mid-December was one such occasion, as are ongoing attacks against Battalion 80 on the outskirts of the city's international airport and a military base to the east, known as Querres.

"They are not happy with us," the rebel commander said. "But they had been hoarding all their weapons anyway."

Meanwhile, more journalists have reported that Jabhat al Nusra has effectively alleviated the bread crisis in Aleppo, and BBC's Paul Wood, who interviewed Al Nusra's leader in Aleppo, says that all flour distribution has been handed over to Jabhat al Nusra.

Apart from this, Abu Lokman, the Jihadi leader, has maintained that sectarianism is not a goal of the group:

There would be no sectarian attacks against Syria's minorities. Christians, especially, had nothing to fear.

"Our religion allows us to marry Christians, eat your food and live amongst you.

"We have many fatwas telling us not to exploit the Christians' blood and possessions. Christ is our prophet too - how much do you love Christ? I love him more than you do."

Regardless of who one believes, it is obvious that Jabhat al Nusra has gained significant power, especially in Aleppo, in the last several months, and the Free Syrian Army is now working hard to change this once again.

1711 GMT: FSA Issues an Arrest Warrant for One of Their Own. The FSA has issued an arrest warrant for one of their commanders in Aleppo, as well as a few other fighters under his command, for the death of a "protester." According to the report, the man was killed by members of the FSA, who then lied to others in the FSA to cover up the death, stating that he died of a "heart attack."

Reading the press release reveals a lot about what the FSA claims to have established in territory that they control. According to the release, the military magistrate investigated the incident, and being unsatisfied with the answers they then forwarded the incident to an Attorney General and the Council of Justice that they have established to provide law and order in the city.

We've heard of the growing justice system, and the implementation of police on the streets, but this is the most elaborate description of the new criminal justice system we've seen.

Of course, the jury is still out (pun intended) as to whether or not this criminal justice system will actually bring any of the men mentioned in the arrest warrant, or any other FSA members who have committed crimes, to justice.

1705 GMT: 113 Dead. According to the LCC, the death toll has risen to 113:

50 in Damascus and its Suburbs "including 15 in Hasenieh camp and 13 in Daraya", 23 in Hama "including 11 in Kafarnabodeh", 11 in Homs, 10 in Aleppo,6 in Daraa, 5 in Idlib, 4 in Swaida " from the FSA" , 2 in Deir Ezzor, 1 in Hasakeh, and 1 in Raqqa.

1555 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 85 people have been killed so far today across Syria:

45 in Damascus and its Suburbs "including 15 in Hasenieh camp and 13 in Daraya", 15 in Hama "including 11 in Kafarnabodeh", 8 in Homs,6 in Daraa, 5 in Aleppo, 4 in Idlib, and 2 in Deir Ezzor.

The death toll in Damascus, Hama, and Homs is elevated from where it was only a week ago, but the trend of intensification of violence seems to have continued today nationwide.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) is an activist network operating both inside and outside of Syria. They claim to use stringent verification processes to ensure that a member of the LCC can vouch for any information posted either on their Facebook page or their website. The LCC also populates a database of those killed in the Syrian conflict, which can be seen at the website for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.

The LCC's casualty figures are a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage. Thanks to Scott Lucas for getting us started today.

1220 GMT: Russia, the US, and the Aleppo Blasts. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has criticised US media for accusations blaming Tuesday's blasts at Aleppo University on the Syrian regime: "Yesterday I saw a semi-neutral report on CNN that it was not ruled out that this terrorist act had been staged by the government forces themselves. I cannot imagine anything more blasphemous."

In a statement on Wednesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry blamed "terrorists" for the "merciless bloody provocation", which was "the terrorists' revenge for the significant losses sustained in their confrontation with government forces".

In contrast, US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "The United States is appalled and saddened by the Syrian regime's deadly attack ysterday on the University of Aleppo,"

Lavrov also reiterated Russia's opposition to a letter from 57 countries calling for referral of Syria to the International Criminal Court for investigation of war crimes accusations:

We should answer the question: what is more important for us? If the most important for us is to punish someone, to condemn someone, to put someone on trial, then it's one logic. If the most important is to stop the violence, then I would focus on the actions aimed at this. Everything else can wait.

0843 GMT: Assad Falling? A provocative claim on the Turkish site Today's Zaman:

Senior US diplomats told their Turkish counterparts, led by Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, who is on a visit in Washington, that the Assad regime has six months to live. The timeline was conveyed to the Turkish side when Sinirlioğlu urged the US diplomats to take clear position on the Syrian crisis that has now left more than 60,000 dead.

0803 GMT: The Turkish Border. Schools have been shut in the Turkish border town of Sanliurfa, because of fighting in the Ras al-Ayn district in Syria between Syrian opposition units and Kurdish fighters linked to the Turkish insurgency PKK.

0603 GMT: Aid. Ertharin Cousin, the head of the World Food Program, said the regime is allowing it to work with local aid groups to reach some of the 2.5 million people who are suffering from hunger.

Until now, most of the agency's food aid was delivered through the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which was only able to provide help to about 1.5 million Syrians a month.

0553 GMT: Explosions and Casualties. The argument over who caused two explosions at Aleppo University on Tuesday, killing more than 80 people, continued yesterday. Indeed, there was still a heated dispute over what caused the blasts, with the regime insisting on "terrorist" car bombs and activists and witnesses claiming rockets or missiles from an airstrike.

And even as those accusations were being swapped, news emerged of another disputed incident. State media and opposition activists agreed that more than 20 people had died in car bombs in Idlib Province --- whether there were two or three was still unclear --- but there was no consensus over responsibility.

The Local Coordination Committees said 183 people were slain on Wednesday, including 18 children and nine women. Of the deaths, 50 were in Damascus and its suburbs, 37 in Homs Province, 25 in Aleppo Province, and 23 in Idlib Province. 

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