DAMASCUS: Syria’s regime unleashed tank fire and air strikes on rebels yesterday as it slammed France for recognising an opposition bloc formed in Qatar that it said amounted to a “declaration of war”.
Tanks shelled two Palestinian refugee camps in the opposition bastion of southern Damascus, while fighter jets bombed Maaret Al Numan, a town near Turkey that rebels captured last month, a watchdog said.
But rebels killed at least 18 soldiers as they overran a military post near Ras Al Ain, a town also on the Turkish border that the armed opposition seized on Friday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A day after France became the first Western nation to recognise the newly united opposition, Damascus hit out at the decision and said the Qatar meeting at which the dissident factions united on Sunday amounted to a war declaration.
“The Doha meeting was a declaration of war. These people (the opposition) don’t want to solve the issue peacefully through the mechanisms of the UN,” Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Muqdad, said.
“We read the Doha document and they reject any dialogue with the government.”
Reacting to the French move, Muqdad said: “Allow me to use the word, this is an immoral position. They are supporting killers, terrorists and they are encouraging the destruction of Syria.”
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev of Russia, a strong Damascus ally, also criticised countries siding with the opposition and insisted Moscow was staying neutral.
“We don’t support anybody in this conflict, neither President Assad nor the rebels... but unfortunately, the point of view of some states is more one-sided,” Medvedev told Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat.
President Francois Hollande said Paris recognised the coalition as “the sole representative of the Syrian people and thus as the future provisional government of a democratic Syria, allowing an end to the Bashar regime”.
The question of arming the rebels would now “have to be necessarily reviewed not only in France but in all countries which will recognise this government,” Hollande added.
National Coalition chief Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib has called on world powers to arm Assad’s foes.
The United States said the new National Coalition was “a legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, but stopped short of recognising it as the sole representative.
US analysts said questions remained over the new coalition, highlighting that a Kurdish body had still not joined, and pointing to deep concern about weapons and cash falling into the hands of militant groups hostile to the West.
The French move came after the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - recognised the coalition. The Arab League stopped short of granting the bloc full recognition, only saying it saw the alliance as “the legitimate representative of the Syrian opposition”.
On the ground, tanks moved on the Yarmuk refugee camp and the neighbouring Damascus district of Tadamum after battles in the area late on Tuesday, said the Observatory.
Shells struck a second refugee camp east of Yarmuk on Wednesday morning while fighter jets bombarded the Idlib province town of Maaret al-Numan, which rebels seized on October 9 and the army has since sought to take back.
The latest clashes, which killed at least 18 soldiers near Ras al-Ain, on the border with Turkey, also left dead three rebels and wounded other combatants, said the Observatory.