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Wednesday
Jan302013

Syria Live Coverage: At Least 80 Dead in Mass Killing in Aleppo

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1655 GMT: Rebels Advance in Northeastern Damascus. According to the Local Coordination Committees, rebel forces have stormed the "Vehicle Directorate" in Harasta. The building has been under siege for many weeks. It is at the northern border of a large military complex located in the city (map).

We'll monitor the situation as the day progresses, but if this building has fallen, so close to such a large military base, it could be another sign of how weak Assad is in the northeast suburbs of Damascus.

1636 GMT: Why Did Israel Strike Now? There's growing evidence (though it's all indirect evidence) that Israel did in fact conduct an airstrike against a military convoy west of Damascus. However, why would such a strike happen now? The Associated Press reports that sources have told them sophisticated weapons, like the SA-17 anti-aircraft system, were being delivered to Hezbollah as part of the convoy:

They said the shipment included sophisticated, Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, which would be strategically "game-changing" in the hands of Hezbollah.

An SA-17?

That's a serious piece of equipment, and one that the Assad regime will want if it plans to stave off international intervention in the future. Why would Assad part with an SA-17 now?

1618 GMT: Battle Near Al Safirah. Yesterday we reported that the rebels claimed to have destroyed a military convoy near the base at Al Safira, southeast of Aleppo (map). This news was especially disconcerting, as the Al Safirah military base reportedly houses one of the largest chemical weapons stockpiles in the Middle East.

Over an hour ago we discovered this video, reportedly showing some of the arms loaded onto the back of these transport trucks that were part of the convoy. Alarmingly, they had loads of artillery shells, as well as unexplained cylinders in the back of one of the vehicles.

We immediately consulted arms specialists, but after examining the lettering on the boxes and the design of the shells, they determined that these are not chemical weapons shells, but rather they are traditional ordinance, high explosive shells, possibly the 125mm D-81 shells used by T-64 and T-72 tanks. The unexplained cylinders are the casings for the propellant charges.

This video apparently shows the end of the fight for the convoy:

1513 GMT: Opposition Ready to Talk? Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, has stated that he believes it is time to negotiate with the regime, a move which has thus far been rejected by the opposition at large:

“As Syrian citizens are going through an unprecedented crisis, and as a goodwill initiative to find a political solution in Syria, I declare I am ready to sit directly with representatives of the Syrian regime in Cairo, Tunisia, or Istanbul,” said the statement by Khatib.

However, Khatib’s statement was immediately rejected by the Syrian National Coalition who said they did not represent the true position of the opposition coalition, which, it said, rejected any kind of settlement with the regime.

A prominent activist weighs in:

Another opinion:

1432 GMT: Israel in Secret Talks With US Security Officials. According to Al Monitor, Israel has been engaged in high-level talks with US security officials, adding weight to the claim of an Israeli airstrike against a convoy reportedly carrying arms near the Syrian-Lebanese border:

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reported:Tuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense and security advisors have “recently held a number of security assessments” focused on developments in Syria, and “the potential shift in the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah, in the event that the latter would get hold of Assad’s WMDs,” Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai reported Monday.

A map of the general area of the strike, according to one journalist:

If this is accurate, it places the airstrike northwest of Damascus and south of Zabadani (real rough estimated location on the map here).

1415 GMT: "Western Diplomat" Confirms Israeli Strike. According to The Guardian, an unnamed "Western Diplomat" has confirmed the airstrike (see updates below). This means that a Western source, as well as segments of the Lebanese media, have both reported the same incident.

The Reuters news agency cited a western diplomat and a security source saying there had been "a hit" in the border area. The Israeli Defence Forces said it had no comment on the report.

The report followed claims in the Lebanese media that up to eight IDF fighter planes had flown over Lebanon's airspace on Tuesday afternoon until the early hours of Wednesday morning.

1401 GMT: Lebanese News Denies Israeli Strike. According to LBC Group TV, the Lebanese National News Agency has denied the news about an Israeli air strike on the Syrian-Lebanese border, but according to the same report there's indication that the Israeli military is increasingly concerned about the conflict in Syria:

Israeli sources said on Tuesday that Syria's advanced conventional weapons would represent as much of a threat to Israel as its chemical arms should they fall into the hands of Syrian rebel forces or Hezbollah guerrillas based in Lebanon.

In Jerusalem, the Israeli military declined any comment.

"We do not comment on reports of this kind," an Israeli Defense Force spokeswoman said.

In this context, the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) denied the news and said that "the information reported on Israeli jet attack on Syrian-Lebanese borders is false."

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

1133 GMT: Rumour of the Day. Lots of Internet jitters and speculation after Lebanese officials reported overflights during the night by Israeli jets.

A Lebanese army statement said that four Israeli planes entered Lebanese air space at 4.30 p.m (1430GMT) on Tuesday. They were replaced four hours later by another group of planes which overflew southern Lebanon until 2 a.m. and a third mission took over, finally leaving at 7.55 a.m on Wednesday morning.

No explanation has been given by Israel for the operations in the region. The Internet speculation, playing up warnings by Israeli leaders over the Syrian regime's control of chemical weapons, is that West Jerusalem may have struck a convoy to prevent transport of the stocks.

At least one Israeli official has told a journalist that the jets struck a Syrian convoy, carrying weapons, inside Lebanon.

1021 GMT: Humanitarian Aid. Three Gulf countries have moved quickly at the start of the United Nations conference in Kuwait for donor aid, pledging $900 million of the $1.5 billion sought.

Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia each offered $300 million.

1020 GMT: Political Warnings. Back from an academic break to find an appeal at the aid donor conference in Kuwait by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who said Syria's civil war needs to end "in the name of humanity".

The UN warned that it needs to raise around $1.5 billion in order to maintain its humanitarian efforts in the region and asked for donations at the end of the conference.

On Tuesday, the European Commission pledged $75 million, the US Government said it would contribute $150 million, and non-government organisations offered $185 million.

Meanwhile, United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi warned:

Syria is being destroyed bit by bit. And in destroying Syria, the region is being pushed into a situation that is extremely bad and extremely important for the entire world. That is why I believe the Security Council simply cannot continue to say. "We are in disagreement, therefore, let’s wait for better times." I think they have got to grapple with this problem now.

0720 GMT: Mass Killing in Aleppo. Ruth Sherwood of The Daily Telegraph posts a first-hand account from Bustan al-Qasr, as family members identified some of the more than 80 executed men whose bodies were found in the Quwaiq River near Aleppo:

It was impossible to be certain who was responsible for their deaths. But those identified, at least half the total by nightfall, were from rebel-held districts, and locals blamed government checkpoints on the other side of the river.

These are my sons,” said Abu Mohammed, 73, as he shuffled towards the corpses laid out in rows in a schoolyard....

“They thought they had nothing to fear from the government, so they went to renew their identity cards. But they didn’t come back. Now I have found them here.”...

Residents said that there had been an attempt by the government to reclaim Bustan al-Qasr the day before, and that in the fight rebels had killed several soldiers.

“When this happened, the loyalist militias that have formed checkpoints on the government side started arresting people whose identity cards showed they were from liberated areas,” said one, Wael Ibrahim, 30. “It is clear they were not being kept in a prison because they still have their belts on their clothes and these are removed usually before people are put in jail.”

0610 GMT: Mass Killing in Aleppo. State news agency SANA's explanation for why it must be "terrorists" who killed at least 80 young men pulled from the Quweiq River near Aleppo:

-A media source underlined that terrorist groups of Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo carried out a mass execution against tens of abducted persons, throwing their bodies in Quweiq river at Bustan al-Qasr area in Aleppo.

"The families have identified a number of the killed, stressing that Jabhat al-Nusra abducted them because of their rejection to cooperate with this terrorist group," the source said in a statement on Tuesday....

SANA reporter in Aleppo said that clashes between the Syrian armed forces and terrorists in Bustan al-Qasr are taking place in the surroundings of the region, adding "there are no presence for the army on the banks of Quweiq river".

SANA reporter added that the competent authorities earlier put barbed wires along the stream of the river to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into the safe areas.

"The bodies, which terrorists and TV misleading channels have claimed that the army killed their owners, were found in the side where terrorists present.. if they were killed in the safe areas, their bodies would stick to the barbed wires before reaching the region where they were discovered," the reporter said.

0530 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees reported 228 people killed on Tuesday, including 80 bodies found in the Quweiq River in Aleppo (see 0520 GMT).

The Quweig deaths were among 118 in Aleppo Province. There were 37 in Damascus and its suburbs, 25 in Daraa Province, and 23 in Homs Province.

Seven women and 13 children were among the casualties.

0520 GMT: Mass Killing. We begin with Tuesday's news of the bodies of at least 80 young men, all executed with a single gunshot to the head or neck, found in the Quwieq River in Aleppo.

A Free Syrian captain put out the initial report: "Until now we have recovered 68 bodies, some of them just teens. But there must be more than 100. There are still many in the water, and we are trying to recover them."

The regime, through a "senior security source", countered that the victims had been kidnapped from the  Bustan al-Qasr district and had been executed by "terrorists", who put out propaganda to deflect their responsibility.

It has been confirmed that a number of the victims had been abducted by armed terrorist groups and their families had made repeated attempts to negotiate their releases.

We will disclose the identities of those killed as soon as we are able to secure the bodies, which is a difficult process since the area is in the hands of terrorist groups.

The Free Syrian Army officer said the dead were being taken to a hospital where relatives could identify them. Meanwhile, family members gathered near the river cast doubt on the regime's version of events. One said, "My brother disappeared weeks ago when he was crossing (through) the regime-held zone, and we don't know where he is or what has become of him."

The 129-kilometre (80-mile) Quweig River originates in Turkey to the north and flows to the southwest of Aleppo, traversing both regime and insurgent-held areas. One Free Syrian Army fighter speculated that the men could have been executed earlier in the week, their bodies carried some distance downstream.

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