12/31/12

DAMASCUS — Violence ravaged Syria into 2013 with the gruesome discovery of dozens of tortured, headless corpses in a Damascus district, clouding end-of-year efforts by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to end 21 months of bloodshed.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad said it welcomed any initiative for talks to end bloodshed in the country, after UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi said he had a peace plan acceptable to world powers.

The government's position, expressed by Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi, came amid a flurry of diplomacy led by Brahimi to halt the conflict that monitors say has now killed more then 45,000 people.

Nearly 90 percent of the dead came in the past 12 months, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Activists reported the discovery of 30 tortured bodies in a flashpoint district of Damascus, while a gruesome video emerged of a separate slaying of three children in the capital.

"Thirty bodies were found in the Barzeh district. They bore signs of torture and have so far not been identified," the Observatory said.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission activist network gave a higher estimate of 50 bodies, saying "their heads were cut and disfigured to the point that it was no longer possible to identify" them.

The video posted online by activists showed the bodies of three young boys with their throats slit open and hands bound behind their backs. Their bodies were discovered on Monday in Jubar.

The authenticity of the footage could not be verified.

The Observatory also reported the killing of the boys, who activists said were kidnapped the day before at a checkpoint on their way home from school.

In central Syria, the army shelled the town of Halfaya in Hama province, where an air strike on a bakery last week killed 60 people, and Houla in Homs province, where pro-regime militiamen are suspected of killing more than 100 people in May in another major massacre.

The Observatory said nearly 90 percent of the 45,000 people killed in the conflict died in 2012, putting this year's toll at 39,362 people, mostly civilians.

The uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring but escalated into an armed rebellion following a brutal government crackdown.

The sharp increase in the death toll came in the face of an escalating resort to air power by the Assad government against densely populated areas, the Observatory said.

Although rebels now hold vast swathes of territory in both the northeast and the northwest, the government has so far stood firm despite Western predictions of its imminent fall.

"The government is working to support the national reconciliation project and will respond to any regional or international initiative that would solve the current crisis through dialogue and peaceful means and prevent foreign intervention in Syria's internal affairs," Halaqi told parliament.

The premier said the revolt against Assad's rule must be resolved only by the Syrian people, "without external pressures or decrees".

Halaqi said the country was "moving toward a historic moment when it will declare victory over its enemies, with the goal of positioning Syria to build a new world order that promotes national sovereignty and the concept of international law".

Brahimi said Sunday he had crafted a ceasefire plan "that could be adopted by the international community".

The proposal involved a ceasefire, the formation of a government, an election plan, and was based on an agreement world powers reached in Geneva in June.

The opposition has already rejected that accord, and insists Assad must go before any dialogue can take place.

Russia and China have so far vetoed three UN Security Council draft resolutions seeking to force Assad's hand with the threat of sanctions.

An oil embargo imposed by Syria's key EU customers has devastated its oil exports and sent the prices of staple goods spiralling.

The Syrian pound has taken a nosedive since the conflict began and was trading at 77.74 against the dollar at the official rate, compared to 55 pounds in late 2011. On the black market, the rate was 93 pounds to the dollar.


Source: AFP
 
 
12/31/12 By Maya Shwayder

The Syrian Network for Human Rights reported that 107 more people were killed by Syrian security forces on Monday. Estimates for the total numbers dead are now more than 45,000, and Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. and Arab League's Joint Special Envoy, says he expects 100,000 more people to die in 2013.

"I am unable to see another solution out of two possibilities," Brahimi told reporters in Cairo on Sunday. "Either a political solution that is accepted by the Syrian people which meets its aspirations and legitimate rights, or Syria to be transformed into hell."

Rumors of chemical use against civilians are circulating -- on Saturday Israeli journalist Ron Ben-Yishai alleged that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had already been using chemical agents, if not chemical weapons, for a few months now. Thus far six people have died from chemical exposure.

In a Washington Post opinion piece on Sunday, U.S. Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham took U.S. President Barack Obama to task for not acting more swiftly and decisively on the Syrian issue, and indeed, for failing to intercede at all. 

"If we remain on the current course, future historians are likely to record the slaughter of innocent Syrians, and the resulting harm done to America’s national interests and moral standing, as a shameful failure of U.S. leadership and one of the darker chapters in our history," the Senators wrote. "That should unsettle us all as we pray for peace and goodwill this holiday season."

But Ben-Yishai countered that there cannot and will not be any military operation against the Syrian regime while Assad still controls the main arms caches or chemical weapons sites.

"Assad, who is aware of this, wants to avoid any act that will lead to international military intervention in Syria," Ben-Yishai wrote. "However, his army is fighting the rebels with brutal determination and is using all the means at its disposal," including using Scud missiles and other heavy artillery on known civilian centers.

"The situation in Syria is bad, very, very bad, and it is getting worse and the pace of deterioration is increasing," Brahimi said. “World peace and security will remain under direct threat from Syria if the problem is not solved in the few coming months."

Brahimi also refused to accept the idea that Syria could be split into several countries, instead suggesting that if a political solution is not found, "Somalization" would occur with various warlords taking over and vying for power.

The Syrian Prime Minister under Assad, Wael al-Halaqi, told al-Arabiya that the Assad government is willing to settle the conflict through talks. “The government is working to support the national reconciliation project and will respond to any regional or international initiative that would solve the current crisis through dialogue and peaceful means and prevent foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs,” he said.

Brahimi didn't seem convinced. "The problem is that both sides are not speaking to one another, [they] are speaking across … one another," Brahimi said in Cairo.

Brahimi arrived in Cairo from Moscow, where he had been meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after meeting with Assad in Damascus. He said that in Moscow he discussed the possibility of future Syrian elections.

"I think that Syrians won't like a presidential regime in the future, like the one they have during the last forty years,” Brahimi said. “In such case, a parliament and a government will be elected, and Syria will start healing its wounds and, God-willing, the regional and international communities will help Syrians resolve their problems and rebuild their country.”

Russia continues to deny that it is either aiding the regime, or making the bed for Assad if he should decide to flee and seek sanctuary, despite the repeated presence of Syrian envoys in Moscow in the past month. 

"We aren't providing the Syrian regime with any offensive weapons or weapons that could be used in a civil war," Lavrov told the AP on Saturday. "We have no leverage over what the regime has got since the Soviet times."

Lavrov said that Assad has "repeatedly said publicly and privately, including in his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi … that he does not intend to leave for anywhere, that he will stay to the end in his post, that he will, as he expressed it, defend the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so forth. There's no possibility to change this position."


Source: IBT
 
 
12/31/12

An editor at Syrian state broadcaster Radio Damascus has told FRANCE 24 how he fled the country with two colleagues because of the huge pressure he was under to “distort the truth.”

In a rare interview with a defected Syrian journalist, Kamal Jamal Bik explained how the Damascus regime and his managers suspected anyone who looked at external sources as being an opponent of the regime.

He also said that the atmosphere of suspicion was compounded by a total lack of balance in the way he and his colleagues were allowed to report the news.

“We were only allowed to use the official SANA news agency, and what reporters we had in the field were only with the state army,” he said. “We on the news desks were told to deform the news, to clean it up. There was constant pressure and censorship.”

Bik said that continuing to work at Radio Damascus had made him “an accomplice to the regime” and called on his colleagues he left behind not to believe claims by the regime that his defection was part of “a foreign agenda”.

Deploring the lack of truth, Bik conceded that he had finally been forced to take a position in a conflict he said was “not a civil war, as is being reported, but an ongoing revolution against a tyrannical regime.”

“We can’t remain silent, we have to take a position, to take sides,” he said. “It is because of this that we had to leave Syria.”

Bik's colleague Lama al-Khadra repeated that their defections were “about taking a side” and that she would rather be “announcing the victory of the revolution on Syrian radio than announcing our defection from a foreign country.”

“From the beginning of the uprising, all our radio broadcasts made us feel like we were killing the Syrian people with our words,” she said. “It was like committing suicide.”

Explaining why she had stayed so long at the radio station, she said: “We had the choice between carrying on with our jobs or going to prison, in the hope that we would find a solution and be given the opportunity to report the truth and to work differently. We were hoping in vain.”

Bik said he and his three colleagues had escaped Syria through Lebanon, where they were given immediate help and support by the French authorities.

Since the start of the uprising in March 2011, some 44,000 Syrians have been killed, and score of journalists have died or disappeared.


Source: France 24
 
 
12/31/12

Dozens of tortured bodies have been found in a flashpoint district of Damascus, a watchdog reported on Monday, in one of the worst atrocities in Syria's 21-month conflict.

The report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights came as a gruesome video emerged on the Internet of a separate slaying of three children who had their throats slashed, also in the capital.

"Thirty bodies were found in the Barzeh district. They bore signs of torture and have so far not been identified," said the Britain-based Observatory.

The Syrian Revolution General Commission, a grassroots network of anti-regime activists, estimated there were 50 bodies, and added that "their heads were cut and disfigured to the point that it was no longer possible to identify" them.

The video posted online by activists showed the bodies of three young boys with their throats slit open and hands bound behind their backs. Their bodies were discovered on Monday in Jubar.

The Observatory also reported the killing of the boys, who opposition activists said had been kidnapped the day before at a checkpoint on their way home from school.

These reports could not be verified independently because of restrictions on the international media by the Syrian authorities.

Regime warplanes, meanwhile, bombarded rebel positions on the northeastern and southwestern outskirts of Damascus, leaving eight civilians dead including two children, said the Observatory.

Seven rebels died in clashes near the capital and in Zabadani to the east near the Lebanese border.

Fighting erupted in Daraya as army reinforcements massed in the battleground town, where more than 500 people were reportedly killed in the conflict's bloodiest massacre in August.

Two rebels were killed in fighting in Syria's second city Aleppo, where fighting has been at a stalemate for months since rebels launched an attack on the commercial hub in mid-July.

Syrian television reported that the army was "clearing Aleppo of terrorists".

In the northwestern province of Idlib, fighters from the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and other rebel battalions pressed an offensive on Hamidiyeh military post, which they stormed two days ago, and continued to lay siege to the nearby base of Wadi Deif.

Regime warplanes responded by raiding rebel positions around Wadi Deif, one of the government's last outposts in the largely rebel-held north, as similar raids were made in the southern province of Daraa, the Observatory said.

In central Syria, the army shelled the town of Halfaya in Hama province, where an air strike on a bakery last week killed 60 people, and Houla in Homs province, where pro-regime militiamen are suspected of killing more than 100 people in May in another major massacre.

The conflict, which erupted in March 2011, has claimed more than 45,000 lives, says the Observatory, which relies on medics and activists on the ground in compiling its tolls.


Source: AFP/Business Insider
 
 
Picture
Photo: Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah
12/31/12

DAMASCUS: Damascus will respond to any initiative that could solve Syria's 21-month conflict through talks, its premier said on Monday, after peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi announced he had a plan to end the bloodshed.

"The government is working to support the national reconciliation project and will respond to any regional or international initiative that would solve the current crisis through dialogue and peaceful means and prevent foreign intervention in Syria's internal affairs," Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi told parliament.

Halaqi emphasised the revolt against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which has left an estimated 45,000 people dead, must be resolved only by the Syrian people, "without external pressures or decrees".

The country, he said, was "moving toward a historic moment when it will declare victory over its enemies, with the goal of positioning Syria to build a new world order that promotes national sovereignty and the concept of international law".

But regime officials and state media have long categorised activists and armed insurgents alike, as enemies or "terrorists" funded by Gulf rivals Qatar and Saudi Arabia, former ally Turkey and the West.

Brahimi said Sunday he had crafted a ceasefire plan "that could be adopted by the international community," but that it was rejected by the opposition, which insists on Assad's departure before any dialogue can take place.

The uprising began in March 2011 with peaceful protests inspired by the Arab Spring, but steadily morphed into an armed rebellion following a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

Even though Syrian rebels now hold vast swathes of territory and have struck the heart of Damascus, the regime has so far stood firm despite Western predictions of its imminent fall.


Source: AFP/Daily Star

 
 
Picture
Photo: Reuters/Kenan Al-Derani/SNN
12/31/12

AMMAN: Heavy fighting raged on the outskirts of Damascus on Monday as elite troops backed by tanks tried to recapture a strategic suburb from rebels in one of the largest military operations in that district in months, opposition activists said.

Five people, including one child, died from army rocket fire that hit Daraya, the activists said. Daraya is one of a series of interconnected Sunni Muslim suburbs that ring Syria's capital and have been at the forefront of the 21-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.

"This is the biggest attack on Daraya in two months. An armored column is trying to advance but it being held (back) by the Free Syrian Army," said Abu Kinan, an opposition activist in the area, referring to a rebel group.

He said that tens of thousands of civilians had fled Daraya during weeks of government assault but that 5,000 remained, along with hundreds of rebels. Daraya is located near the main southern highway leading to the Jordanian border 85 kms (50 miles) to the south.

Activists said the military is trying to push back rebels who have been slowly advancing from the outskirts of Damascus to within striking distance of central districts inhabited by Assad's Alawite minority sect.

Assad's forces have mostly relied on aerial and artillery bombardment, rather than infantry. Rebels have been able take several outlying towns and have clashed with government troops near Damascus International Airport, halting flights by foreign airlines.

Another activist in Damascus with connection to rebels, who did not want to be named, said Daraya has been a firing position for rebels using mortars and homemade rockets. From it, they have been able to hit a huge presidential complex located at a hilltop overlooking Damascus and target pro-Assad shabbiha militia in an Alawite enclave nearby known as Mezze 86.

"So far they have missed the palace but they are getting better. I think the regime has realized that it no longer can afford to have such a threat so close by, but it has failed to overrun Daraya before," he said.


Source: Reuters

 
 
Picture
Photo: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
12/29/12 By Ellen Barry

MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said Saturday that there was “no possibility” of persuading President Bashar al-Assad to leave Syria, leaving little hope for a breakthrough in the standoff. He also said that the opposition leaders’ insistence on Mr. Assad’s departure as a precondition for peace talks would come at the cost of “more and more lives of Syrian citizens” in a conflict that has already killed tens of thousands.

Moscow has made a muscular push for a political solution in recent days, sending signals that the Kremlin, one of Mr. Assad’s most important allies, sees a pressing need for political change. As an international consensus forms around the notion of a transitional government, it has been snagged on the thorny question of what role, if any, Mr. Assad would occupy in it.

But after talks in Moscow on Saturday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy on Syria, Mr. Lavrov said that Russia could not press Mr. Assad to give up power. Mr. Lavrov has said that Russia “isn’t in the business of regime change,” but his characterization of Mr. Assad’s stance on Saturday sounded more definitive.

“He has repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, including during his meeting with Lakhdar Brahimi not long ago, that he has no plans to go anywhere, that he will stay in his post until the end, that he will, as he says, protect the Syrian people, Syrian sovereignty and so forth,” Mr. Lavrov said. “There is no possibility of changing this position.”

There have been evident changes in the standoff over Syria in recent weeks, as Russia acknowledged that government forces were losing territory and distanced itself from Mr. Assad. In televised remarks, President Vladimir V. Putin said that Russian leaders “are not preoccupied by the fate of Assad’s regime” and that after 40 years of rule by one family, “undoubtedly there is a call for change.”

But Moscow has watched the recent Arab uprisings with mounting worry, arguing that the West was unleashing dangerous turbulence by supporting popular rebellions, and it has vehemently opposed any international intervention in Syria as a matter of principle.

Developments on the battlefield have accelerated the pace of diplomacy.

Anti-Assad activists on Saturday reported fierce fighting and large numbers of casualties in the central city of Homs, where they said government troops were completely surrounding the Deir Ba’alba neighborhood after storming the area on Friday. An activist reached by telephone, who said he was less than a mile from the neighborhood on Saturday night, said he heard gunfire and saw houses in flames. Communications to the area had been cut, and civilians and rebel fighters who had managed to flee were “traumatized,” he said.

Mr. Brahimi, an Algerian statesman who is viewed sympathetically in Moscow,recommended last week that a transitional government be established, perhaps within months, and that it should rule Syria until elections could be held.

Like Russia, Mr. Brahimi hopes to arrange a political settlement on the basis of an international agreement reached this summer in Geneva, which envisages a transitional government and a peacekeeping force. But the Geneva document does not address Mr. Assad’s fate, nor does it invoke tough sanctions against the Syrian government under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which authorizes economic measures and, if necessary, military action.

On Saturday, Mr. Brahimi said that it might be necessary to “make some small changes to the Geneva agreement.”

“Nonetheless,” he added, “I consider that it is a wonderful basis for the continuation of the political process.” He warned that if a political solution was not possible, Syria would be overrun by violence, like Somalia. He also said his recent visit to Damascus had convinced him that continued fighting in the country could turn into “something horrible,” and he envisioned the flight of a million people across Syria’s borders into Jordan and Lebanon.

“The problem could grow to such proportions that it could have a substantial effect on our future, and we cannot ignore this,” Mr. Brahimi said.

Russia has set the stage for forward momentum, announcing a gathering in mid-January between the United States, Russia and Mr. Brahimi to discuss Syria.

Moscow may see these talks as a chance to rebuild its prestige in the Arab world, where Russia’s historically strong alliances have been badly damaged by the standoff over Syria. Mr. Lavrov bridled on Saturday when a reporter from an Arabic news channel asked him to comment on criticism that Russia was “a participant in the Syrian conflict” because it continued to fulfill weapons contracts with Damascus after the outbreak of violence.

The accusation, Mr. Lavrov said, “is so far from the truth that there’s no way to comment on it.” He said that Russia did not supply the government with offensive weapons, and that much of Syria’s arsenal dated to the Soviet era. He also said the opposition was receiving a far more deadly flow of weapons and aid.

The leader of the main opposition coalition, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, responded coolly to an overture on Friday from Russia, saying Moscow should publicly apologize for its pro-government position. He also refused to meet with Russian leaders in Moscow, saying a meeting was possible only in an Arab country.

Mr. Lavrov said Saturday that he would agree to such a meeting, but he responded to Mr. Khatib’s remarks with an equally chilly response.

“I know that Mr. Khatib is probably not very experienced in politics,” he said. “If he aspires to the role of a serious politician, he will nonetheless understand that it is in his own interests to hear our analysis directly from us.”


Source: NY Times

 
 
12/30/12

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Syrian refugees on Sunday that victory over the "tyrant" President Bashar al-Assad was at hand.

"I can see it clearly that the help of God is near," Erdogan said in televised remarks at Turkey's Akcakale refugee camp in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa.

Erdogan was welcomed to the 25,000-people settlement by thousands of cheering Syrians, who were waving Turkish flags and holding a giant portrait of him.

"You have suffered so much but do not despair," Erdogan said.

The Turkish leader was accompanied by Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, who flanked the premier along with several of Erdogan's deputies.

Erdogan's visit was the first since Syrian mortars killed five Turks on October 3 in Akcakale, setting off weeks of artillery attacks from both sides of the border.

Turkey is currently home to almost 150,000 Syrians who have fled their country, where the 21-month old conflict has claimed 45,000 lives.

Erdogan said the number of refugees was likely to be as high as 220,000, with many Syrians renting homes in nearby cities rather than staying at the refugee camps.

"We know that tyrant Syrian regime, tyrant Bashar, have martyred close to 50,000 Syrians," Erdogan said to applause from the refugees.

"We will be standing beside you until the very end," he said.

Erdogan, a former ally, became a vocal and fierce critic of the Assad regime when its crackdown on protests turned deadly, and has joined in Arab and Western calls for his ouster.


Source: AFP/Now Media
 
 
12/30/12 By Amir Ahmed

The stench of the burnt bodies was so potent, Abu Jafar said, he could smell it from 2 kilometers away.

"It smells awful because the regime appears to have burnt so many bodies recently," the opposition activist said Sunday from the beleaguered city of Homs.

"Some cars arrived this morning and carried away dead bodies. We are not sure where."

Jafar's account comes a day after what may be the deadliest day yet in Syria's 21-month civil war, according to opposition figures.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, gave a dire warning Sunday on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria.

"If nearly 50,000 people have been killed in about two years, do not expect just 25,000 people to die next year -- maybe 100,000 will die," he told reporters in Cairo.

"The pace is increasing," he said.

"A solution is still possible, but it is only getting more complicated every day," Brahimi added. "Had we dealt more carefully with this conflict in 2011, it would have been much easier to resolve it. There is no question that it is much harder today."

Brahimi met Sunday with Nabil Elaraby, secretary-general of the Arab League.

On Saturday, Brahimi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Russia and China have used their veto power in the U.N. Security Council to block some of the toughest resolutions proposed against the Syrian regime.

Traveling heavily in hopes of brokering a halt to the war, Brahimisaid last week he is pinning his hopes on the formation of a transitional government in Damascus that would hold power until an election.

At least 397 people were killed across the country Saturday, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. More than 50 deaths were reported Sunday, including six children.

The LCC said Saturday's death toll included more than 200 people who were captured and "field executed" by Syrian soldiers in the Homs suburb of Deir Baalbeh after Syrian forces won a battle there.

The group's representative in Deir Baalbeh said he could only personally account for 27 deaths, but said a Syrian soldier who had been captured by rebels said government forces killed at least 200 people in the suburb.

The group posted video of several men's bodies lined up in a grassy field with wounds to the head, in what it claimed was footage taken by witnesses.

Jafar said he believes Deir Baalbeh was targeted "because it is the main gate to reach the Khaldiya neighborhood, which has been under the control of the rebels."

Syrian state-run TV confirmed there was conflict in the area but said that government forces had been chasing down "terrorists." News footage showed bodies that appeared to have been dragged across the floor in a building, leaving long trails of blood behind.

The news report said forces had killed "several terrorists" in the Deir Baalbeh area. The government frequently refers to rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad as "terrorists."

But another opposition activist in Homs, Hadi Abdallah, said the situation in nearby Deir Baalbeh "is only turning from bad to worse."

"Smoke is rising from Deir Baalbeh this morning, and a stench is coming out of some of its streets due to the burning of some corpses by the regime forces," Abdallah said Sunday.

"What is noticeable in the bodies we found yesterday and today in Deir Baalbeh is that they appear to have been slaughtered at the neck and then burned, including women and children. Others appear to have been killed from knife and bullet wounds."

Syria's state-run news agency SANA said Sunday that the military has been killing many terrorists.

One army unit "killed several terrorists and injured many others" and destroyed launchers of locally made missiles that the terrorists had used to attack orchards in the Maartamasrin area in Idlib province, SANA reported.

CNN cannot independently confirm casualty and other reports as Syria's government has severely restricted access to the country.


Source: CNN
 
 
Picture
Photo: AP/Khalil Hamra
12/30/12 By Yara Bayoumy

AZAZ, Syria: Gravediggers at the cemetery in the northern Syrian town of Azaz no longer wait for bombs to fall before they break the ground. The dead come too fast.

A war plane dropped two bombs that destroyed at least six houses on Saturday. Eleven people were killed, activists say. Some children were buried two to a grave to save space.

On Sunday morning the workers were back, digging fresh graves for the next victims, whoever they may be.

"We know the plane is coming to hit us, so we're being prepared," said Abu Sulaiman, one of a few men digging at the Sheikh Saad cemetary.

"Massacres are happening. We're putting every two or three bodies together. We've been working and digging since 6 in the morning. We're going to dig 10 new graves today," he said.

After 21 months of war, rebel fighters have captured much of northern and eastern Syria. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad still control the densely populated southwest, the main north-south highway and the Mediterranean coast.

The government also holds airbases throughout the country, which troops defend with artillery and air strikes, outgunning the lightly armed fighters.

Azaz lies near one of those bases, the Menagh military airport, 5-7 km (3-5 miles) away, which rebel fighters have surrounded and have been attacking for a few weeks, provoking retaliatory strikes on nearby towns. Because they are so close, residents have come to expect to be hit.

More than 45,000 people have been killed in the war between rebels, mainly drawn from the Sunni Muslim majority, and forces loyal to Assad, a member of the Shi'ite-linked Alawite minority whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

Fida, a 15-year-old girl in a green scarf and purple coat looked on as her father shoveled dirt from the gravesite. The dead from the previous day's attacks included friends she recognised when their shrouds were pulled back.

"Yesterday was the first time I uncovered blankets to discover that my friends had died," she said, as young children near the cemetery played hopscotch on the streets and kicked stones about.

"I was just about to go visit them about a half hour before the strike hit," she said. "In the end I visited them when they were dead."

Abu Bahri, a smart 45-year-old man with a close-cut beard, recounts how the town dug fresh graves a few months ago when the fighting in Aleppo province turned ferocious.

"When we first dug graves, we dug 14. We didn't expect them to be filled, and then we were surprised by the first massacre that happened," he told Reuters as he supervised a group of workers digging new graves and unloading concrete blocks.

"We expect the regime to commit more massacres because it's a criminal regime. It's a genocide. They're not hitting Free Syria Army targets, they're hitting civilians," he said, referring to the main rebel force in the area.

Marble gravestones are now squeezed barely a few centimeters apart as workers try to fit as many bodies as possible into the cemetary, near a block of single storey homes. When space runs out, they may be forced to find a new location, says Abu Sulaiman, the gravedigger.


Source: Reuters/Huffington Post