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Syria Live Coverage: Iraqi Insurgents Claim Killing of 48 Regime Troops

Site inside Iraq where 48 Syrian soldiers were killed last week

See also Syria Exclusive: The Western-Armed Insurgents Who Executed POWs and Captured UN Peacekeepers
Syria Feature: Who Killed the 110 Men Found in the Quweig River?
Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Qatar Says No More Aid to Cairo
Sunday's Syria Live Coverage: 21 UN Peacekeepers Freed

2020 GMT: Rebels Take Series of Bases Southwest of Damascus. Since Friday, rebels have overwhelmed and captured several regime bases southwest of Damascus on the road to Daraa province. Confirming the specific locations has been hard to do, but we know that the bases are in the Kiswah area (map), and to the south of this suburb as well.

We've heard from some sources that some of the Surface-to-Air missiles sites in the area were decommissioned. However, videos from the base of the 137th regiment appear to show fully-functional missiles there (hat tip to Brown Moses for sending us this Youtube channel):

It's also important to keep in mind that the Free Syrian Army, the Dawn of Islam Brigade, and the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade have captured several checkpoints and bases on the border with the Demilitarized Zone to the southwest of these bases. All in all, the rebels have made many gains in the last week in the Daraa/Darayya areas, and when the regime runs out of bases in these areas the rebels will be able to divert their forces to the capital.

Despite this, however, the regime still has nominal control of parts of the Houran area of Daraa province, and over much of Daraa city. The southwest of Damascus is also guarded by the headquarters of the 4th Armored Division, one of the most feared units under Assad's command.

1846 GMT: Rockets Fired Towards Baba Amr, Homs. This high-quality video was reportedly filmed on the campus of Homs University. It reportedly shows the regime firing surface-to-surface rockets towards Baba Amr, Homs. The rockets can be seen being fired, and the audio of their impact is also recorded on the video. The University is east of Baba Amr (map). It's also important to note that such rockets are unguided, so it is not possible for the rockets to be aimed at a particular target, such as a military position occupied by rebels. In other words, there's no way to ensure that civilians would not be killed by such a weapon when fired inside a city at a target inside that same city.

1834 GMT: Death Toll Rises. 92 people have been killed so far today, according to the LCC:

31 martyrs were reported in Aleppo; 22 in Damascus and its suburbs; 14 in Deir Ezzor; 10 in Homs; 8 in Daraa; 3 in Idlib; 3 in Hama; and 1 in Jableh.

See our note about the casualty figures and reports published by the LCC.

1821 GMT: State Department Brands Rebel Attack on Assad Troops "Terrorism". We started today with the report that an Al Qaeda affiliate has claimed responsibility for an attack inside Iraq against a convoy of Assad troops. The attack killed 48 Syrian soldiers and 9 Iraqi soldiers and sparked fears of cross-border escalation.

According to State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, the attack was conducted against "non-combatants" and is therefore and act of terrorism:

While there is no single agreed-upon definition of the word "terrorism," the U.S. government's own code of federal regulations defines terrorism as "the unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives."

Reporters in the briefing noted that no civilians were targeted and that the rebels are engaged in all-out war with the Syrian regime, but Nuland held firm.

"Again, any time you attack noncombatants in this way -- and the techniques were obviously terrorist tactics -- we're going to call it what it is," she said.

1740 GMT: Mortar Rounds Land in Central Damascus. Earlier, the Gulf news source Al Arabiya, which is often sensationalist, reported that mortar rounds landed near the State Security Headquarters in Damascus. Now SANA, Syrian State Media, is carrying a similar report:

A source at Damascus Police Command told SANA that a mortar shell fell behind the shops on the way to al-Dweilaa town and led to the martyrdom of three citizens and injuring 28 others.

The source pointed out that a mortar shell fell in al-Misk avenue in Bab Sharqi, causing material damage, but no casualties were reported.

Another mortar shell fell in Tishreen Stadium during a football match between Banyas Refinery Team and Omaya Team, causing the injury of a number of players and administrative staff.

1700 GMT: UN Panel to Investigate 20 Massacres. The UN has consistently produced some of the most detailed reports on Syrian massacres. Today they have announced the formation of a panel to investigate 20 such massacres:

Commission chair Paulo Sergio Pinheiro says the destructive stalemate between President Bashar Assad's regime and anti-government rebels is fueling a rise in mass killings, with the violence spreading to such an extent that "there are no more enclaves of stability in Syria today."

Commission member Vitit Muntarbhorn also told reporters Monday both sides are committing war crimes but it appears that "government authorities have been involved more in regard to crimes against humanity."

1640 GMT: Ukrainian Journalist Escapes. The Voice of Russia reports that a Ukranian journalist who was reportedly abducted by rebels has escaped and is now in Damascus:

Ankhar Kochneva called up her husband, Dmitry Petrov, saying she had fled opposition militants and was safely escorted to the government-controlled territory. “She is on her way to Damascus,” Mr. Petrov told reporters.

Russian media is almost exclusively pro-regime, and the story has very few details. It's unclear who abducted Kochneva or how she escaped.

1552 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 72 people have been killed across the nation so far today:

22 martyrs were reported in Aleppo; 15 in Damascus and its suburbs; 14 in Deir Ezzor; 9 in Homs; 7 in Daraa; 3 in Idlib; and 1 in Hama.

See our note about the casualty figures and reports published by the LCC.

1535 GMT: Deir Ez Zor. We questioned whether the vehicles listed below were operational. A source sends us this video which clearly shows that at least one of the armored vehicles captured at the regiment 113 base is up and running, in the hands of a rebel group, likely Jabhat al Nusra (a Twitter follower notes that the Brigade in question is actually called the "Euphrates Storm Brigade" but it's not clear if they are an Al Nusra affiliate).:

1517 GMT: Rebels Capture Major Base in East. The rebels have made a series of significant advances near Deir Ez Zor this weekend. Rebel forces stormed the base of the 113th regiment, west of Deir Ez Zor (map), one of a series of bases that protects the city from the west. These bases are also critical to the regime's defense of the Deir Ez Zor Airport, Assad's largest military base in the east. Without these bases the airport is vulnerable, and without the airport Assad's forces will be cut off from air support, but also from reinforcements and flown-in supplies.

Many tanks and armored vehicles were captured, though many of them may be inoperable, and some of them are clearly destroyed:

Thanks to Red Tornadoes for supplying the videos.

1448 GMT: Revisiting the Haswiyah Massacre. One of the stories we've been working on for months now is the massacre in Haswiyah, a neighborhood of northwest Homs. In January, a large group of people was killed, and the debate began right away about who the culprits of this crime were. Evidence both pointed to anti-Assad groups and pro-Assad groups. Since then, we've tried to track down more evidence, and we've also tried to understand better exactly where this happened, and what were the circumstances at the time. Our initial report can be found here.

The BBC has conducted their own follow-up, which includes forensic analysis of videos posted at the time. They have also extensively mapped the area of the massacre. The new analysis seems to suggest that the actions taken by the culprits would have been unwise if they did not have a significant presence in the area, as it would take time and attract attention. Perhaps this could be seen as evidence that the regime conducted the attack.

Their analysis is here, though we hope to add it to our own analysis sometime soon.

1422 GMT: Croatian Weapons in Daraa. One of the discoveries that EA Worldview has made is that the weapons that have made it to Croatia have also been accompanied by training programs, foreign intelligence, a fresh reorganization, and a new strategy. The blogger Eliot Higgins sent us a video channel showing rebels fighting in Khirbet Ghazaleh (see previous update below). We immediately noticed this video, showing the rebels in possession of one of those Croatian weapons systems:

In other words, not only have we documented a strong rebel strategy and a well-organized attack northeast of Daraa city, but we've also documented that the Croatian weapons are present at both Khirbet Ghazalah and Busr al Harir, suggesting that the presence of the weapons and a well-organized attack is not a coincidence.

1356 GMT: Rebel Offensive in Daraa Province Dozens of videos show rebel fighters pushing forward in Daraa province, northeast of Daraa city. Earlier we posted video from Busr al Harir (map), but these videos are from Khirbat Ghazaleh, half the distance between Daraa and Busr al Harir (map). This town is also on a major road, so by attacking both places at once it cuts the two major access points for reinforcements on the ground and splits Assad's focus. This buys time for the rebels to hammer away at checkpoints and fortified buildings occupied by the Assad military. Controlling both towns also cuts the escape route of Assad forces fleeing the base of the 38th regiment, a base which rebels have partially or completely overrun in recent days (map):

An ambush on the road where soldiers from the 38th regiment base are fleeing (Eliot Higgins spots that the rebels are firing an M79 Osa, a Croatian weapon):

Other videos, such as this one, show the town being bombarded by Assad forces in response.

1344 GMT: Death Toll Rising. According to the Local Coordination Committees, at least 50 people have been killed so far today:

14 martyrs were reported in Deir Ezzor; 10 in Aleppo; 9 in Damascus and its suburbs; 7 in Daraa; 6 in Homs; 3 in Idlib; and 1 in Hama.

According to the LCC, many of the deaths in Deir Ez Zor were the result of surface-to-surface missiles landing on the village of Baserah. 3 women, 2 children, and 4 men were reportedly killed.

See our note about the casualty figures and reports published by the LCC.

1312 GMT: Many Districts of Homs Bombed. Severe airstrikes have hit the Baba Amr district in southwest Homs (map), but airstrikes have also rocked central Homs, including the Bab Hood district in the center of the city (map). The video below reportedly shows one of the strikes against the Bab Hood district:

1301 GMT: Turkey Border Gate Attack Work of Assad Regime. Turkey says they have arrested 8 people, 5 of whom they have already sent to court, under suspicion of being connected to a January car bombing at a border crossing that killed 14 people. Today's Zaman reports:

Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Güler told press on Monday that police had detained eight people that day, with five of them sent to court for plotting the attack at the border gate. He added that two of the arrestees were the ones who actually staged the attack and others are believed to have aided and abetted the two...

Güler added that the attackers were linked to the Syrian regime, which has lost control of the country in a violent battle and led over a million of its people to seek refuge in bordering countries, including some 185,000 in Turkey.

1255 GMT: Heavy Fighting in Homs. One of the reasons that the fighting in Homs is so intense today is that the regime launched an offensive last week to secure the city. However, the rebels launched a counter-offensive over the weekend, making significant gains in both the Baba Amr district and several areas north of the city. Reuters reports:

In a counter-offensive, Sunni rebels punched their way through government lines in the north and west to loosen a months-long army siege on their strongholds in the centre of the Syria's third biggest city, opposition sources said.

Insurgents based in the provinces of Hama and Idlib advanced on Homs this weekend from the north while brigades from rural Homs attacked government positions in its Baba Amro district.

This area was overrun by the army after a long siege a year ago and subsequently visited by Assad.

A Homsian activist network has posted video of an airstrike in Baba Amr.

1240 GMT: Rebels Attack Busr al Harir. The town of Busr al Harir has been an important battlefield in Daraa province. Situated only 30 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital (map), whoever controls the town controls access to an important highway. To the surprise of many, the rebels were able to take large parts of the town months ago. Since then it was revealed that one of the key reasons for their success was the large amounts of Croatian weapons that made it to rebel units inside the town.

Today that town is once agauin under heavy rebel attack. Several videos show heavy fighting, but this one is interesting. The rebels appear to have surrounded a security building, and in the midst of heavy fighting they are demanding the surrender of the Assad forces:

Not surprising to us, one video shows rebels using an M60 recoilless rifle, statiuoned on a rooftop, to hammer Assad positions. The M60 is effective at hitting both armored vehicles, but also fortified positions.

But the town has also been heavily bombed by Assad's airforce in response today. A video shows the bombing.

1207 GMT: Homs Under Heavy Attack. The 21st century "switchboards" are lit up today with news that the regime has pounded Homs with intense artillery strikes, and may be moving tanks into the city as we speak. The LCC reports that the Baba Amr district is being flooded with Assad military reinforcements. The also have this report:

Dozens of wounded were reported due to shelling with warplane and Vozdika artillery and mortars and rocket launchers in Dar Kabira and Ter Maalah.

This video reportedly shows the Baba Amr district this morning:

1200 GMT: Kidnapping of UN Peacekeepers tied to Foreign Arms. The story that Saudi Arabia was supplying weapons to Syrian rebels was important, and it was a story that was eventually picked up by the mainstream media. The story that the US knew about this program and endorsed it broke last night when John Kerry, the new US Secretary of state, admitted it and said he was confident that the arms were making it into the hands of the "right people."

Now, EA Worldview has uncovered evidence that the group that kidnapped UN Peacekeepers last week was also involved in the killing of a group of prisoners of war.

But more importantly, that group, the Yarmouk MArtyrs Brigade, can be directly tied to the efforts to foreign weapons coming from Croatia.

See our separate Syria Exclusive: The Western-Armed Insurgents Who Executed POWs and Captured UN Peacekeepers

1155 GMT: Citizen Journalists Killed in Syria. With few foreign reporters able to make it to Syria, and no reliable mainstream media channels inside Syria, much of what the world knows about Syria comes via citizen journalists. Citizen journalists post news to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and various blogs, often risking their lives to smuggle the news out of Syria.

Today the activist news network ANA reports that two prominent citizen journalists were killed on Sunday in the Qabon district of Damascus:

2 citizen journalists died yesterday evening while covering the mortar shelling that targeted the #Qaboun area of Damascus; their names are Ghitah Abd Al-Jawad and Amer Junaid, who was the director of the Qaboun Media Office.

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

1118 GMT: Problems Near Damascus. The Daily Star of Beirut carries a first-hand report from Artouz near the capital:

"Yesterday I did not make anything to eat as there was no electricity for the entire day," says Umm Fadi....

Like most Syrians, the mother of four faces a shortage of oil and gas and has to resort to cooking on a wood fire or, when there is power, an electric stove.

"A gas cylinder costs 3,500 (Syrian) pounds (49 dollars) and there is no oil... we have to wait for two or three hours patiently just to buy bread," she says with a sigh.

Another resident, 35-year-old Bilal, also expresses frustration.

"The price of gas has risen tenfold. Oil, if you can find it, is twice as expensive as it used to be. Prices are simply exorbitant, plus one has to wait for hours in queues," he says, lamenting the "unbearable" living conditions.

1108 GMT:The UN's Report on the Conflict. In its latest report on the Syrian conflict, covering from 15 January to 3 March, the United Nations has condemned both sides:

The conflict continues to be waged by both Government forces and anti-Government armed groups with insufficient respect for the protection of the civilian population. The parties must take all feasible precautions to protect civilians. The indiscriminate shelling and aerial bombardment of civilian areas is unlawful.

In particular, the shelling of bakery lines and funeral processions have formed an unacceptable pattern of violations. Attacks on protected objects, such as hospitals, are prohibited. When attacking a clear military objective, the Government is obliged to take steps to avoid disproportionate civilian casualties. Anti-Government armed groups continue to violate their obligation under international humanitarian law by locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.

Such conduct fails to adequately protect civilians from the vagaries of war. The use of protected objects, such as mosques, as bases or for storage of weaponry must cease.

Government forces and, to a lesser extent, anti-Government armed groups have arbitrarily arrested and unlawfully detained individuals. All parties are urged to stop apprehending persons without legal basis or formal charges and to abide by international humanitarian law in their treatment of detainees. The commission reiterates its request to be granted imm ediate access to the country, including access to detention centres run by both the Government and by armed groups.

1100 GMT:The Insurgent Victory in al-Raqqa. The pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan has indicated that the Syrian military will not try to retake al-Raqqa, Syria's sixth-largest cty, after it was captured by insurgents earlier this month.

Al-Watan said there was "no urgency" for the army to be dispatched to al-Raqqa, advocating "precision" aerial and rocket strikes instead.

The newspaper declared that the tribes of alRaqqa, which the regime armed several months ago, should be left to defend themselves because some tribal and religious elders refused to fight and surrendered the city to insurgents.

Al-Watan concluded, "For sure, it's the duty, doctrine and honor of the Arab Syrian Army to defend every inch of Syrian land against the invaders, but it is also the duty of this army not to open new battle fronts that would delay victory in other areas."

1055 GMT:The Regime Troops Killed in Iraq. A Syrian officer who was among 13 survivors of an ambush by Islamist insurgents inside Iraq last week (see 0745 GMT) said that his commanders in Damascus turned down repeated requests to send reinforcements to defend the border post, nearly 500 miles from the capital.

The officer said that he lost six of his men when he refused to surrender the Yarubiyah border crossing to an Islamist force. When and the remaining 63 men retreated into Iraq, looking to move to another border crossing hundreds of miles to the south, they were ambushed by multiple roadside bombs and gunmen.

At least 51 Syrians and nine Iraqis were slain.

1005 GMT:Russia and the Opposition. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has met Haytham Manna of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, the leading opposition group inside Syria.

Manna reportedly said:

We have always said that a peaceful political solution goes through Moscow.

A military solution is still being enforced on the ground. But the predominant majority of Syrians are convinced that a political solution is desirable, that it will save us, and that it stands a real chance.

Lavrov responded:

The most important thing is that all the questions be decided by the Syrians themselves, without pressure from abroad, so that the Syrians themselves decide their own fate and the fate of individual politicians.

The situation in Syria is not getting any better, even though all the sides agree that there should be an end to violence and the start of dialogue.

But there are many of those who are trying to prevent this, including some outside sponsors of the so-called "irreconcilable opposition".

0926 GMT: Homs. Insurgents have broken through regime line in the north and west of Homs, helping to ease the ongoing siege of their positions within the city amid continuing aerial attacks, according to opposition activist.

Insurgents based in Hama and Idlib Provinces advanced on Homs this weekend from the north while brigades from rural Homs attacked government positions in the Baba Amro district.

State news agency SANA said "a unit of our brave army engaged with an armed terrorist group that had tried to infiltrate Baba Amro...and killed and wounded several of its members".

0849 GMT: Mass Killings. Two notable investigations of mass killings are posted this morning.

In a separate feature, we publish the enquiry by Martin Chulov and Ben Solomon of the Guardian into who killed the 110 men whose bodies were found in the Quweig River in late January.

The BBC features an interactive examination of the mass killing at Haswiya, a village near Homs, in January. At the time, insurgents and the regime blamed each other for the deaths of more than 100 people.

The investigation is extensive, including a contribution by a forensic pathologist, but inconclusive.

0828 GMT: Weapons. Eliot Higgins, one of the leading analysts of weapons in the Syrian conflicts, posts images pointing to the use of new, bigger cluster bombs by the regime.

0808 GMT: Casualties The Local Coordination Committee claims 125 people, including 15 women and 13 children, were killed on Sunday.

The deaths included 46 in Damascus and its suburbs and 38 in Aleppo Province.

The Violations Documentation Center records 52,039 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 144 from Sunday. Of the dead, 41,994 were civilians, an increase of 101 from yesterday.

0758 GMT: Mass Killing? Opposition activists claim at least 20 bodies of young men, shot by security forces, have been found in the Quwaig River, a small waterway running near Aleppo.

In late January, up to 110 bodies turned up in "the river of martyrs", apparently carried downstream after a massacre in villages in central Aleppo Province. On average, several bodies a day have since appeared.

The opposition claims the men are being executed by regime forces. State media says the bodies are those of people abducted and killed by the Islamist insurgency Jabhat al-Nusra.

Video on Sunday appeared to show 16 bodies of young men, dressed in casual clothes. lying on the banks of the Quwaig River. Some were gagged and had their hands bound, and many appeared to have been shot in the head or had deep wounds to the neck.

Louay al-Halabi, an activist in Aleppo, said he was present when the men were dug up: "I counted 23 bodies today. One man literally had his brains blown out."

Halabi asserted that the men appeared to have been prisoners at security compounds in Government-controlled areas, taken either dead or alive to a public park in the centre of Aleppo that has been turned into a barracks.

Mohammad Nour, another activist who said he was at the site, said the men were a mix of civilians and captured insurgent fighters: "Six men were identified so far. Five of them were detained by air force intelligence last week."

0745 GMT: Killing of Regime Troops in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq insurgency has claimed last week's attack on a convoy in western Iraq that killed 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards.

The soldiers had entered Iraq for medical treatment on 4 March, after a battle in which insurgents seized a town and crossing on the Syrian side of the border.

In a statement posted on jihadist forums on Monday, the Islamic State of Iraq said it had destroyed a column of "the Safavid army with its associated vehicles" carrying "members of the Nusairi army and Syrian regime 'shabiha' [militia]".

"Safavid" implies a group under Iranian control, while Nusairi is a derogatory term for Alawites, the sect to which Syrian President Assad belongs.

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