Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Civilians in the crossfire

More than 800 killed in Syria this week

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BEIRUT -- A rocket slammed into a building in Syria's northern city of Aleppo and two suicide bombers struck near a mosque in the south Friday, capping a particularly bloody week in the country's civil war with more than 800 civilians killed, including an unusually large proportion in government-held areas.

The residential building struck in Aleppo was in a part of the city controlled by regime forces, as was a university hit earlier in the week in an attack that killed 87 people, mostly students. The government accused rebels in both attacks, saying they hit the locations with rockets, a claim the opposition denies.

But if confirmed, it would signal the rebels have acquired more sophisticated weaponry from captured regime bases and are now using them to take the fight more into government-held areas in an attempt to break a months-long stalemate in the war.

Rebels have in the past posted videos showing them capturing heavy rockets -- apparently of the style fired from truck-mounted launchers -- at regime military bases they have overrun. But it is not clear whether the fighters have -- or are able to -- use any of the ballistics. The rebels' main weaponry are automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Rockets would for the first time give them a greater range, an advantage that until now the regime military has overwhelmingly held, with its arsenal of warplanes, helicopters, artillery, rockets and mortars. Regime bombardment has caused heavy civilian casualties -- and if the rebels start blasting back with sometimes inaccurate rockets, the civilian toll would likely rise.

But the opposition has denied being behind the Aleppo university strike and the hit Friday on the residential building, which one activist group said killed 12 people.

"It was an air raid," said Aleppo-based activist Abu Raed al-Halabi. When asked why the regime would attack a government-held area, al-Halabi said most people in Aleppo are opposed to the regime in Aleppo.

Al-Halabi said the rebels have captured some rockets around the capital Damascus but not in the Aleppo region. "If they have such missile they would have fired it at the Military Intelligence headquarters," he said.

Even if the rebels have captured surface-to-surface rockets it won't be a turning point in their battle against the regime of President Bashar Assad, said Aram Nerguizian, a Middle East security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Such systems would "do little to erode (regime) air power, effectively target (its) infrastructure, turn the tide of the conflict or change the broader strategic picture," he said. And rebel use of rockets could backfire since "these inaccurate systems are more likely to produce either no impact or kill more civilians than Syrian military forces."

Friday's strike in Aleppo and suicide car bombings in the southern town of Daraa occurred during a particularly bloody week in Syria's nearly two-year-old conflict. Since the previous Friday, more than 1,000 people have been killed, including 804 civilians, 214 soldiers and 20 army defectors fighting with the rebels, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based activist group that gathers information from a network of contacts on the ground.

An Al-Jazeera TV correspondent was killed in Syria on Friday, the second journalist to lose his life in as many days covering the brutal civil war. Mohammed al-Masalmeh was shot to death by a sniper while covering fighting in his hometown of Busra al-Harir in the south. A day earlier, French journalist Yves Debay was killed by a sniper in Aleppo.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 A29

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