BEIRUT: Syrian air force jets and helicopters bombed rebel-held districts across the country yesterday, the first day of the festival of Eid Al Adha, and rebel fighters fired rockets into the heart of Damascus.
President Bashar Al Assad, whose forces are battling a civil war which grew out of protests against his rule two years ago, was shown on state television attending morning prayers with ministers at a Damascus mosque at the start of the Eid holiday.
But there was no let-up in the violence which has torn Syria apart and divided the Middle East between Sunni Muslim supporters of the rebels and Shia backers of Assad, despite a joint plea from regional Arab and Muslim organisations for both sides to mark the occasion with a ceasefire.
Activists said warplanes bombed targets in rebel strongholds to the east and south of the capital. Video footage uploaded on the Internet showed explosions and thick columns of smoke rising above the town of Daraya, on the southwestern edge of Damascus.
Rebels fired rockets and mortars into the Old City and the Mazraa district in the city centre, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said air force helicopters carried out 11 bombing raids on the rebel town of Latamna in Hama province.
It said the helicopters dropped large improvised explosives, or barrel bombs, on the town. Three children were killed in one of the early waves of bombing, it said.
The Observatory says at least 115,000 rebels, soldiers and civilians have been killed in the 2-1/2 year civil war which has also driven 2.1 million Syrians to seek refuge abroad and displaced millions more inside their country.
A further 170 people were killed on Monday, it said. The fighting also pits rival rebel factions against each other. Yesterday activists said militants from Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant clashed with local Northern Storm fighters at the Bab Salam border post with Turkey. Video footage showed grey smoke rising from what the activists said were Northern Storm positions which had been shelled by the Islamic State fighters. The clashes were close to a refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border, they said.
The divisions among Assad’s opponents and the growing power of the Islamist fighters have made it increasingly difficult for international aid workers to operate in the lawless rebel-held northern provinces. The violence has continued despite a UN-endorsed mission to oversee the elimination of Assad’s chemical weapons, which was set up as a result of a rare agreement between the United States and Russia after an August sarin gas attack in Damascus.
Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons have visited eight of a total of around 20 sites where they are due to oversee the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal and production facilities.