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Wednesday
Mar062013

Syria Live Coverage: More than 1 Million Refugees


See Also Yesterday's Syria Live Coverage: Insurgents Capture City of al-Raqqa
Today's Egypt (and Beyond) Live Coverage: Top Mubarak Ally Sentenced to 37 Years in Prison
Syria Feature: The Conflict --- and Truce --- Between Insurgents and Kurds in Ras al-Ain



2055 GMT: Death Toll Rises. According to the Local Coordination Committees, 127 people have died so far today across the nation:

34 in Damascus and its Suburbs, 27 martyrs in Homs, 18 in Raqqa, 19 in Idlib, 15 in Aleppo, 6 in Deir Ezzor, 4 in Lattakia , 2 in Hama and 1 in Daraa

See our note on the casualty figures published by the LCC.

It's worth noting that the numbers coming from Al Raqqah and Homs rival those in Damascus, Idlib, and Aleppo - the locations of the fiercest fighting on the front lines.

2036 GMT: Rebel Leadership Condemns Kidnapping. Now a statement of condemnation from the leader of the Supreme Military Council, Salim Idriss:

Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the main rebel fighting force - condemned the seizure of the UN observers.

FSA leader Gen Salim Idriss told the BBC's Newshour programme he would "do everything what I can to liberate them".

2022 GMT: The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. We're still learning more about the brigade that captured the UN convoy, a brigade that has moved from obscurity to infamy in a matter of days.

Our translator Joanna Paraszczuk says that the men call themselves the Shuhada al-Yarmouk, and they identify as the "Jaish al Hur," Free Syrian Army. This fits with other patterns - the Tawid Brigade and other groups that are not under the leadership of the Supreme Militarily Council also often identify as Free Syrian Army.

Other than that, this is not the first time they have taken prisoners. Also, a different translator who is Syrian says that these men do not sound Syrian at all - it's possible that they are Palestinians - Yarmouk is a Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus.

This is another possible motive for the attack.

Some activists have suggested that the UN peacekeepers were bringing aid to the Assad army in the area, however no sources who we typically rely on have posted that claim.

1937 GMT: UN Peacekeepers in the Golan. Reuters carries a UN report on the mission of those kidnapped by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade:

The United Nations in New York said its peacekeepers had been detained by around 30 fighters in the Golan Heights.

"The U.N. observers were on a regular supply mission and were stopped near Observation Post 58, which had sustained damage and was evacuated this past weekend following heavy combat in close proximity at Al Jamla," it said, referring to a village which saw fierce confrontations on Sunday.

It did not say the nationality of the observers but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group which is in contact with the rebel brigade said they were Filipino.

The Reuters reports frames this story in context of recent international commitments made to the rebels. The Twitter-sphere also echoed this kind of disbelief - why, at the exact time where the world is finally doing something about Syria, would the rebel group do this now?

The group that kidnapped the peacekeepers is part of the Liwa Shuhada group, perhaps even a splinter group of that group. From what we understand, that group is closely tied to the Tawid brigade. We also believe that both of these groups are not part of the Free Damascenes Movement, a new reorganization of both secular and moderate Islamist fighters under the leadership of the Supreme Military Council. In other words, the perpetrators of this kidnapping may belong to a group of rebels who have been cut out of the supply chain of new foreign weapons and training that have been coming into rebel hands.

According to Joanna Paraszczuk, who helped us with the translation, the kidnappers in the video also said disparaging things about the UN, the US, the European Union, and Israel. In other words, the rebels operating within the confines of the Supreme Military Council, under the leadership of Salim Idriss and in conjunction with the National Coalition's Moaz al Khatib, are growing closer to the US and the EU. They may be frustrated at the slow pace of support, but they are making inroads. These groups may feel differently, as they are being excluded from the solution.

We're still learning more about the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and the Liwa Shuhada, but it seems that even as the rebels are unifying, there are disparate groups that may also become more chaotic or disconnected.

This is also a test for the Syrian opposition. The leadership will have to condemn this attack or risk being isolated from its newfound allies in the international community. On the other hand, if they condemn this act, they could move closer to a schism inside the Syrian opposition.

1749 GMT: UN Peacekeepers In the Videos. Michael Kelley of Business Insider picks up a detail from the videos that we initially missed:

At least five unarmed UN observers can be seen sitting inside the trucks.

1741 GMT: Reuters Confirms UN Hostages. This is the latest report from Reuters, where they add more context to the video we've posted below:

"The command of the Martyrs of Yarmouk announced that it is holding forces of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force until the withdrawal of forces of the regime of (President) Bashar Assad from the outskirts of the village of Jamla," said the man, wearing civilian clothes.

"If no withdrawal is made within 24 hours we will treat them as prisoners," he said, accusing them of collaborating with Assad's forces to push the rebels out of Jamla. UNDOF supervises a 1974 ceasefire agreement between Syria and Israel.

The UN said on Wednesday that about 20 peacekeepers have been detained by armed fighters near the Golan Heights.

1737 GMT: Who Are the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade? According to our translator Joanna Paraszczuk, this group appears to say that they are part of the Liwa Shuhada brigade, a larger group that has known to conduct asymmetrical warfare. They claim that they were one of the groups that conducted a bombing in Damascus that killed many high-ranking officers in the Assad regime. They've also reportedly conducted car-bombings in Idlib in conjunction with the Tawid Brigade.

The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade appears to have been formed on August 8th of 2012 (note - at least this website posted news of their forming on August 8th, it's unclear when they formed). They appear to be a splinter group, or a subgroup of the Liwa Shuhada Brigade, but until yesterday they were not brought to my attention.

There appear to be many videos of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade holding "shabiha" prisoners," but it's not often clear what their fate is.

In videos we discovered yesterday, the same brigade has a group of prisoners, and some of the rebel guards taunt and beat the men. Eventually their guards open fire. In a second video, a man complaining of the un-Islamic behavior of Assad soldiers smashes a bottle of alcohol while touring a battlefield. At the end of that video he comes upon the prisoners - but they all appear to be dead.

Some have suggested that someone inside the building was trying to kill the rebels which is why they opened fire on the prisoners. However, all our translators could hear was that one of the rebel guards wants to kill some of the people inside, and "rasshash," or machine gun, is shouted many times. Our translator also adds this:

I heard also "khales" that means "done."

The evidence is perhaps inconclusive as to whether the guards were under attack. However, one translator did suggest that the men clearly want to execute the prisoners. Also, none of the men outside the building appear to have been armed, and all of them appear to have been killed.

1655 GMT: Islamists Capture UN Convoy. Another video of posted by the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, clearly showing the UN convoy:

1650 GMT: Islamist Group Captures UN Convoy. Yesterday we posted video, reportedly taken in Daraa province, that showed the Islamist "Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade" executing a group of prisoners of war. Today, the group has released a video of fighters standing in front of a convoy of UN trucks. They say they have captured the UN workers and they are demanding that Bashar al Assad's forces leave the area.

This was reportedly taken in the village of Jamlah, right on the border with Syria, but chances are they have crossed the border in order to sieze the convoy.


View Syria - 2013 March 6 - EA Worldview in a larger map

1619 GMT: More on the Arab League. It seems that the Arab League's decision is not so straight-forward, as the Syrian National Coalition may not meet all of the prerequisites to represent Syria in the league. Namely, they will have to select an executive leadership board to be recognized:

The Arab League has asked Syria's main opposition bloc to choose a representative to attend its meeting in Doha later this month, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

The influential group comprising representatives from 22 Arab countries has been discussing whether to offer Syria's seat to an opposition figure instead of President Bashar al-Assad's government.

There was also dissent. Namely, Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour argued that communications needed to be reestablished with Damascus:

"I call for Syria's membership of the Arab League to be unblocked," Mansour told a League ministerial meeting. "Communication with Syria ... is essential for a political solution."

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati's government is dominated by a coalition including Hezbollah and its allies who support Assad.

Mikati, who has sought to follow a policy of "dissociation" from the conflict in Lebanon's dominant neighbour, has said his country would respect any decisions taken by the League over Syria. However, Mansour has been critical of the Cairo-based organisation's steps against Damascus.

It's also unclear if the move had the support of Iraq.

1603 GMT: Opposition Recognized by Arab League. A major political win for the Syrian oppoisition:

The Arab League suspended Syria from its membership back in November of 2011, but this is a major step in uniting the region against the Assad regime and behind the officially-recognized leadership of the rebels. While many will focus on the implications for the Syrian regime, perhaps the more important implication is the recognition of the specific leadership of the National Coalition, which openly supports the leadership of the Free Syrian Army through the Supreme Military Coalition. This means that, as far as the Arab League is concerned, Moaz al Khatib and Salim Idriss are in charge of Syria, not Bashar al Assad, and not Jabhat al Nusra.

1545 GMT: Intense Fighting in Damascus. There are reports of heavy fighting and intense regime shelling and bombing in eastern Damascus, but not just in the rural Ghouta - in the urban Jobar and Qabon districts. Even more alarming, there are reports of fighting the the Abasseen Stadium and Square, central locations that the rebels are not yet in control of (map).

For an overview of how incredibly intense things are in Jobar, start with this 360-degree view of fire and smoke rising from the district:

A French expatriate has posted these Tweets (he also says he spoke to Radio France, and the audio is supposedly hair-raising):

The CFDPC, a network of activists who work to cover the news from Damascus and its surrounding suburbs, reports that two small children have been killed in Jobar, and they have also posted videos of intense fighting and shelling in Qaboun and Saqba.

1505 GMT: Bombs and Shells Fall on Homs. These videos were reportedly taken in Bab Hood, in the center of Homs (map). The explosions occur every few seconds:

A massive explosion, and a building patially collapses - the panic in the voices of the civilians is palpable:

1445 GMT: Homs Rocked By Explosions. Residents in Homs awoke to some huge explosions today, affecting ares in at least two districts - Bab Houd, in the center of the city, and Dar Kabera to the northwest (map):

Apparently, the city has been heavily bombed today, but Jabhat al Nusrah has also conducted a major strike against regime checkpoints north of the city:

We're not sure which came first - the Jabhat al Nuisra strikes, or the airstrikes, Homs has been intensely bombed for several days as the regime tries to secure the city and the rebels inside the city fight back.

Even though the front lines have moved away from Homs, the fighting, bombing, and shelling, has barely let up for more than a year. That said, this is a notable escalation of violence in Syria's central city.

1415 GMT: Regime Shelling Al Raqqah. Al Raqqah, Syria's 6th largest city, is for all intents and purposes in rebel control. There are rumors that the regime is trying to take it back, but we've seen no evidence of this. What we have seen, however, is plenty of evidence that Assad's artillery and air forces are attacking the city. What's most distressing is the report from several sources that the regime has bombed the Bayatra district. The LCC reports that dozens have been killed or wounded in the bombing raid, and the have posted this video claiming to show people removing bodies from the rubble. The damage appears to be extensive:

As you can see from the map, this district is a central location, a residential location away from the front lines (from what we've been told, the frontlines are now on the outskirts of the city), and most importantly this district borders the square where a statue of Assad's father was toppled (map).

In other words, this looks like a reprisal against civilians, not a strike that has any military value.

1330 GMT: Khatib and Idriss Going to Washington. Yesterday we posted reports by several opposition sources that the head of the Syrian National Coaltion, Moaz al Khatib, and the head of the Supreme Military Council, Salim Idriss, were both going to meet with US President Barack Obama next week. Those reports caught the eye of journalist Ilhan Tanir, who asked the White House if the reports were true. The White House then published a "non-denial" suggesting that they were unwilling to make an announcement but that the news was possible.

Read about the reports, and our analysis, in yesterday's live coverage.

Today, NPR's Deborah Amos reports that Khatib and Idriss are indeed headed to Washington next week, though no details of their trip have been announced.

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

1320 GMT: UK to Increase Direct Aid to Rebels. In a message to Parliament the British Foreign Secretary William Hague has stated that the UK will supply the Syrian Rebels with "non-lethal" materials in an effort "to help save lives". In addition to providing training and assisstance, the UK will also donate £13 million of logisical and humanitarian support including armoured vehicles and body armour. Mr Hague added that it is a "necessary, proportionate and lawful" response to "extreme human suffering".

1210 GMT: Insurgents and Weapons. The leading insurgent commander Salim Idris, in a speech at the European Parliament in Brussels, has appealed for weapons.

Idris called for anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to protect the civilian population: "When we don't have enough weapons, when we don't have enough ammunition, the regime still considers itself powerful, and it continues killing."

Idris claimed, "If we have the arms and munitions we need, we can get rid of the regime within a month."

0604 GMT: Casualties. The Local Coordination Committees claim 134 people were killed on Tuesday, including 34 in Damascus and its suburbs, 27 in Daraa Province, 23 in Raqqa Province, and 18 in Aleppo Province.

The Violence Documentation Center records 51,444 deaths since the start of the conflict in March 2011, an increase of 85 from Tuesday. Of the dead, 41,607 were civilians, an increase of 57 from yesterday.

0554 GMT: Refugees. The Syrian crisis has passed a symbolic mark, with United Nations figures pointing to more than a million Syrians registered or waiting to be recorded as refugees.

One-third of those have joined the UN lists since January. Jordan, which has seen the sharpest rise, now has more than 400,000 refugees --- with only one overcrowded camp built and another being constructed --- and officials say the total could reach a million this year.

And despite the significance of the number, this is far from the entire story. Many more Syrians are internally displaced, and the UN has estimated that 2.5 million inside the country are in need of aid.

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