Rebels threaten Christian towns ‘Assad won’t go’

BEIRUT, Dec 22, (Agencies): Rebels have threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in central Syria if residents do not “evict” government troops they say are using the towns as a base to attack nearby areas.

A video released by rebels showed Rashid Abul-Fidaa, who identified himself as the commander of the Ansar Brigade for Hama province, calling on locals in Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s forces or prepare for an assault.

“Assad’s gangs in the cities are shelling our villages with mortars and rockets destroying our homes, killing our children and displacing our people,” said Abdul-Fidaa, who wore an Islamic headband and was surrounded by gunmen. “You should perform your duty by evicting Assad’s gangs,” he said. “Otherwise our warriors will storm the hideouts of the Assad gangs.”

Abdul-Fidaa accused regime forces of taking positions in the two towns in order to “incite sectarian strife” between Christians and the predominantly Sunni opposition. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam.

The threat comes just two days after a UN team investigating human rights abuses in Syria accused anti-Assad militants of hiding among the civilian population, triggering strikes by government artillery and the air force.

The Britain-based Syrian Observa-tory for Human Rights, the activist group which reported the rebel ultimatum on Saturday, said such an attack by rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.

Clashes between troops and rebels in the central city of Homs, Syria’s third largest, have already displaced tens of thousands of Christians, most of whom either fled to the relatively safe coastal areas or to neighboring Lebanon.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said some Christians and Alawites have also left Hama province in the past several days to escape violence. He said some of them found shelter in the coastal city of Tartus.

In Damascus, the new head of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch said that Christians in Syria had deep roots in the country and were not part of the conflict. Speaking to reporters in the capital, Patriarch John X. Yazigi, urged rival factions to negotiate a settlement.

Violence continued elsewhere in the country on Saturday.

The Observatory said a car bomb went off in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, killing at least five people and wounding others. A Syrian official in the capital confirmed the blast but had no immediate words on casualties.

Stalemate
Meanwhile, Syria’s civil war has reached stalemate and international efforts to persuade President Bashar al-Assad to quit will fail, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday.
Mainly Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to overthrow Assad are fighting on the edge of the capital Damascus and expanding southwards from their northern strongholds in Aleppo and Idlib into the central province of Hama.

But Assad, from the Alawite minority linked to Shi’ite Islam, has responded with artillery, air strikes and — according to the NATO military alliance which is stationing anti-missile defences in neighbouring Turkey — with Scud-type missiles.

The Kremlin’s Middle East envoy was quoted as saying earlier this month that the rebels could defeat Assad’s forces and that Moscow was preparing a possible evacuation of Russians, the strongest signs yet that it is preparing for a post-Assad Syria.

That followed concerted calls from Western powers and some Arab countries for Assad to step down before Syria’s 21-month-old conflict, which has killed more than 44,000 people according to activists, wreaks more destruction.

But Lavrov said the Syrian president was not about to bow to pressure from opponents or more sympathetic leaders in Moscow and Beijing.

“Listen, no one is going to win this war,” he told reporters aboard a government plane en route to Moscow from the Russia-EU summit in Brussels. “Assad is not going anywhere, no matter what anyone says, be it China or Russia.”

Lavrov said Russia had rejected requests from countries in the region to pressure Assad to go or offer him safe haven, and warned that his exit might lead to an upsurge in fighting.

He also said Syrian authorities were gathering the country’s chemical weapons in one or two areas and that they were “under control” for the time being. “Currently the (Syrian) government is doing all it can to secure (chemical weapons), according to intelligence data we have and the West has,” he said.

Western countries said three weeks ago that Assad’s government might be preparing to use poison gas to counter rebels who are encamped around his capital and control rural Aleppo and Idlib in the north.
In other news, Iran plans to send humanitarian aid to Palestinians in Syria living in an area recently seized by Syrian rebels, Iran’s ambassador to Syria was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Iran has been a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of Syria who has been battling to put down a 21-month uprising against his rule, and Tehran has also long cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian people.

The aid would be dispatched to Yarmouk, a Palestinian district near the centre of Damascus, which has become one of the latest battlefields for Syrian rebels and a target for Assad’s artillery.

Earlier this week, insurgents took control of the Yarmouk camp, a densely populated urban district home to thousands of impoverished Palestinian refugees and Syrians.

Rebels said on Thursday they had negotiated to put the camp back into the hands of anti-Assad Palestinian fighters. There are some 500,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants living in Syria, and they have been divided by the uprising.

Iran will send an initial shipment of blankets, food, and medicine in the coming days via Damascus airport to be delivered to Yarmouk officials for distribution among Palestinians, Iran’s ambassador to Syria Mohammad Reza Sheibani told the Mehr news agency on Saturday.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry and the Red Crescent organisation had taken the decision to send the aid, Sheibani said. He did not say specifically when the aid would be sent.

Western countries have accused Iran of supplying weapons to Syrian government forces to help put down the uprising, though Iran has denied it is helping Assad militarily.

Both Assad’s government and the mainly Sunni Muslim Syrian rebels have enlisted and armed divided Palestinian factions as the uprising has evolved into a civil war.

Thousands of displaced Yarmouk residents have fled the violence for the Lebanese border or set up Palestinian communities elsewhere in Damascus.

A key opposition group said on Saturday that Syria’s conflict is not sectarian, contradicting warnings earlier this week by a UN team that increasing sectarianism is threatening whole communities.

“The Syrian revolution is neither sectarian nor bloody,” the Syrian National Council said, two days after UN investigators described the 21-month conflict as “overtly sectarian in nature.”

The SNC said the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad “will not divide Syrian society according to religious or ethnic lines.

“The only division that Syrian society is witnessing is between a bloodthirsty, oppressive regime... and people calling for freedom and equality,” the statement said.

On Thursday, UN investigators said the conflict has become openly sectarian, threatening whole communities, and warned that newly formed armed Islamist groups were increasingly operating independently of the main rebel force, the Free Syrian Army.

“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said.

“As the conflict drags on, the parties have become ever more violent and unpredictable, which has led to their conduct increasingly being in breach of international law,” it said.

“The dangers are evident,” it continued, citing particular tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
“Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or of being killed inside the country,” it said, stressing that “with communities believing — not without cause — that they face an existential threat, the need for a negotiated settlement is more urgent than ever.”

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