Tuesday 31 July 2012

Queueing for bread

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: Final report on the documented deaths for Tuesday 31/7/2012

More than 140 Syrians were killed on Tuesday: 43 unarmed civilians, 41 armed rebels, 2 defected soldiers, 56 members of regime forces, and 6 members of the popular committees.

43 Unarmed civilians:

-In Homs, 10 civilians were killed. A civilian from the town of Talaf was killed by armed supporters of the regime. Three were killed due t

o the bombardment of al-Rastan. Two civilians were killed under torture after their arrest at the al-Joura checkpoint in the city of el-Quseir. Four murdered bodies were found near the town of Talbeeseh in the country side, three of them were unknown bodies.-In Aleppo, 8 civilians were killed. Six of them, of which two children, were killed due to the bombardment of the towns of Anjara and Ma’aret el-Artiq in the country side. Two civilian casualties’ names were certified today after they were killed during the bombardment of Salah al-Deen neighborhood several days ago.

-In Dara’a province, 8 civilians were killed. Four of them in the city, of which one was killed by gunfire on his car in el-Bahhar neighborhood. Three civilians were killed, between them two brothers, by sniper shots in the neighborhoods of Tariq al-Sad and al-Mokhayam. Two civilians, one of them a woman, were killed in the town of Tafas due to the bombardment of the town. An unknown dead civilian’s body was found near the town of Saida. A child was killed due to the bombardment of the town of Othman.

-In Reef Dimashq, 8 civilians were killed. One of them a child killed by regime forces’ gunfire in the town of Madaya. 3 civilians were killed in the town of Yelda by regime forces’ gunfire. One was killed by regime forces’ gunfire in Douma. Two were killed in the town of Zamalka, of which one killed by regime forces’ gunfire and the other killed due to the bombardment of the town. And one suffering from injuries sustained due to the bombardment of the town of al-M’adamieh a few days ago.

-In Deir Izzor, 6 civilians were killed. One of them killed by a sniper shot in al-Ardi neighborhood. Another killed by al-Barid checkpoint’s gunfire in al-Jora neighborhood. Four civilians were killed in al-Omal neighborhood, between them two ladies, and an unknown civilian.

-In Hama, a child on Tuesday midnight was killed after the car he was in was shot in al-Ta’awonieh neighborhood.

-In Damascus, two civilians were killed. One of them a lady killed due to the bombardment of al-Tadamon neighborhood, and the other from the neighborhood of Jobar killed by regime forces’ gunfire in the town of Ain Trma in the country side.

41 Armed Rebels:

Homs prov: 5 rebel fighters. One was killed suffering from injuries sustained by regime forces gunfire. 2 killed in clashes with regime forces in the neighborhoods of ‘al-Seltanieh’ and ‘Karam Shamsham’. Two other fighters were killed in clashes in the towns of Talkalakh and al-Ghnto.

Aleppo prov: 27 rebel fighters killed, most of them in the city of Aleppo. A rebel leader killed by a sniper shot in al-Marja neighbourhood. 7 were killed during clashes with regime forces near al-Salheen police department and in al-Maysar and Salah al-Deen neighborhoods. 3 rebels died in the city and have not been identified. 1 rebel died of earlier wounds.
No less than 15 rebel fighters, with uncertified names, were killed during clashes with regime forces and armed regime supporters from the Birri family in several neighborhoods of the city in Aleppo.

Dera’a prov: 3 rebels killed. A rebel fighter was killed during clashes with regime forces in the town of al-Hirak. Two rebel fighters from the province were killed during clashes in Damascus.

Reef Dimashq: 4 rebel fighters killed during clashes in the town of Yalda.

Deir Izzor prov: A rebel leader was killed in the al-Ummal neighbourhood of Deir Izzor.

Idlib prov: A rebel fighter was killed suffering from injuries sustained during clashes with regime forces in the village of al-Rami in the country side.

Two defected soldiers were killed during clashes in the country side of Aleppo and Reef Dimashq.

Six members of the popular committees that support the regime in the area of Jaramana, who set up checkpoints in the surroundings of their area, were killed after an attack on their checkpoint today at dawn by unknown armed men.

No less than 56 of regime forces were killed after the attack on police departments in Aleppo and attacks military vehicles, and by clashes in all of Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Reef Dimashq, and Dara’a.


Media and rights groups ignore the miserable humanitarian conditions in Deir Izzor: Report on the humanitarian situation in Deir Izzor Province:

According to government statistics, from the central statistics office, the inhabitants of Deir Izzor province are 1,657,500 people. 44.6% of which live in the city of Deir Izzor (739,000). (statistics taken in 2010)

The average expenditure of a family is 24300 Syrian pounds, 13700 of which is used on food; the average is for the top 10 economic categories of income, the other sections of society live on much less. According to government statistics: only 222,409 people are employed in the province. 2.9% are self-employed . The inflation rate is 4.97. All these numbers predate the beginning of the revolution.

Deir al Zor and the bombardment:
The province of Deir al Zor is suffering from continuous bombardment by from regime forces, today is the 38th consecutive day of the shelling. There is no media coverage. There are difficulties in providing aid and medical treatment to those affected by the violence.

The infrastructure of the city is heavily damaged as well as private properties, as a result of continuous artillery and mortar bombardment on cities, village on towns:
– Civilian areas, commercial areas and private properties were looted by regime forces, eye witnesses report.
– Public facilities like University faculties, water networks and electrical networks have been burned.
– The hardest hit areas are : Al-Muwazafeen, al-Jbeileh, al-Hamadeyeh, al-Erdee, al-Sheikh Yasin. The Areas of al-Erfee, Deir Ateeq and al-Kanamat suffered partial destruction.

The monetary losses in the city of Deir Izzor alone is estimated at 11 billion Syrian pounds.

•Medical situation:
There is an acute shortage in medical equipment, especially blood bags, medicine and tools used for surgery and emergencies. Large sections of the population are finding it too difficult to pay medical bills. Skilled medical personnel are scarce, especially in field hospitals.
• Humanitarian relief in Deir Izzor:
1. The number of refugees is estimated to be 500,000 ( located to other Syrian provinces)
2. It is estimated that only 30% of the inhabitants have remained, mainly because of the lack of financial ability to relocate to a safer area.
3. Main areas of shortage in relief in Deir Izzor:

A. Providing reliable food subsistence. There are no regular supplies.
B. The need to provide monetary support to families, since there are no work opportunities and the last government salary was received on 1/6/2012.
C. The need to urgently provide: infant formula (baby milk), food, mattresses, and water tanks for drinking water, to more than 550 families that have taken refuge in local schools on the al-Kesrah road (which connects between Raqah and Deir Izzor). The schools lack the basic requirements for people to inhabit them.
• Casualties in Deir Izzor:
Estimates suggest hundreds of people have been killed since the beginning of the bombardment and military operations 38 days ago. Among the dead are women and children. Some were killed as result of torture.

Most of casualties were a result of regime gunfire or bombardment. Because of the continuing military operations, many have resorted to burying their dead in their gardens or in the local parks.
It is estimated that more than 7000 people have been injured.
The Syrian Observatory for Human rights urges the international community and its various organisations to urgently work on sending medical and food aid to the province of Deir Izzor, and all the besieged and devastated cities in Syria. There needs to be international pressure on the Syrian regime to allow supplies to enter.

Aleppo city: The al-Meyser neighbourhood is being bombarded by military helicopters, clouds of dark smoke are rising up from the neighbourhood. Rebel fighters took control of the police stations in Bab al-Neryrab, Hanano and al-Salheen after brutal clashes with those barricaded inside the buildings, 8 rebel fighters were killed. The Salaheddin neighbourhood was violently bombarded by regime forces.

Violent clashes took place in the Bab al-Neyrab neighbourhood between members of the armed rebel battalions and armed members of the Al-Berri clan (pro-regime gunmen). Many rebel fighters were killed during the clashes, documenting their number has proved difficult due to the intense situation. Several members of the al-Berri clan have been taken captive.

Footage: More than 10 members of the Al-Berri clan have been taken captive by rebel fighters in the city of Aleppo 31/7/2012: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbFG-wUbMB0&feature=player_embedded#!

NOW! Lebanon
[local time]  22:40 Members of the rebel Free Syrian Army executed regime loyalists in the embattled northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
 21:54 The writer of a controversial Vogue profile of Syria’s First Lady Asma al-Assad says she urged the influential fashion magazine not to run the piece as the Arab Spring took hold.
 20:34 The opposition Syrian National Council said on Tuesday that it was too early to form a government in exile and that a leading dissident’s announcement that he had been tasked with forming one was damaging.
 19:52 An Islamist militant group has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks against regime forces in Syria, SITE Intelligence Group reported on Tuesday.
 19:28 A senior Syrian diplomat in Yerevan has defected to join the ranks of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, an Armenian Foreign Ministry official said on Tuesday.
 18:40 More than 276,000 Syrians have fled their conflict-wracked country since March 2011, according to UN refugee agency figures released on Tuesday.
 17:54 More than 300 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the eastern Syrian province of Deir az-Zour in July, when army operations intensified, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
 17:46 The Syrian army’s helicopters are shelling the Damascus town of Zamalka, Al-Arabiya television reported.
 17:43 Syrian security forces killed 54 people on Tuesday, Al-Arabiya quoted activists as saying.
 16:45 Syrian opposition figure Haytham al-Maleh told reporters on Tuesday that he has been tasked with forming a government in exile based in Cairo.
 15:57 Syrian army and rebels Tuesday deployed a large number of reinforcements to the northern city of Aleppo for a “decisive battle” that is seen lasting for several weeks, a Damascus security source said.
 14:22 Reuters reported on Tuesday that Islamists from outside Syria have been traveling to the conflict-stricken country to join the side of the rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime.
 13:49 Rebels overran two police stations in Aleppo on Tuesday killing at least 40 policemen, a watchdog said, as fighting for control of Syria’s commercial capital raged into a fourth day.
 13:42 Clashes between the Syrian army and rebels erupted in Damascus and other parts of the country on Tuesday, a watchdog said.
 13:33 CNN reported on Tuesday that Syrian rebels were using tanks captured on Monday to shell a regime base outside of Aleppo.
 12:50 Iraqi Kurdish forces gave basic training to Syrian Kurds to fill any “security gap” should the Syrian regime fall, a top official in the party of the Kurdistan region’s president said on Tuesday.
 12:46 Russia on Tuesday changed its official status for the security situation in Syria, saying that the country was “in a state of emergency of military conflict,” Russian RIA Novosti news agency reported.
 11:13 Anti-Syrian regime protests started in the Duma, Harasta and Al-Muhajireen areas of Damascus, Al-Jazeera television reported.
 11:12 Anti-regime protests kicked off in the Aleppo neighborhoods of Ashrafieh, Al-Chaar, Saif al-Dawla and Al-Aadamiya, Al-Jazeera television reported.
 11:11 Iran “will not allow the enemy to advance” in its key ally Syria, but does not yet see the need to directly intervene, the deputy chief of the Islamic republic’s armed forces was quoted as saying in reports on Tuesday.
 11:02 Syrian forces on Tuesday killed 22 people, Al-Jazeera television quoted the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights as saying.
 Syrian rebels took control of a police station in the Aleppo neighborhood of Salhin and detained a number of officers and soldiers, Al-Jazeera television reported.
 9:52 Syrian troops and rebels fought pitched battles near an intelligence headquarters in Aleppo on Tuesday, a watchdog said, as a military offensive in Syria’s commercial capital raged into a fourth day.
 9:42 The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent letters to the head of the UN Security Council and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reiterating its stance that armed terrorist groups were behind the unrest in the country.
 9:19 US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told CNN on Monday that the Syrian military should remain in place if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lost his grip on power.
 8:48 A YouTube video uploaded on Monday purportedly shows the Syrian forces’ shelling of Homs’ neighborhoods.
 7:43 For 16 months, Syria’s two biggest cities Damascus and Aleppo were seen as safe havens from the country’s bloodshed, but deadly fighting over the past two weeks is forcing people who took refuge there to flee yet again.
 7:22 US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by telephone Monday “to coordinate efforts to accelerate a political transition in Syria,” the White House said.
 7:00 MORNING LEADER: Syrian government forces used helicopter gunships to strafe rebel-held districts in Aleppo on Monday and shelled the area on the third day of a pitched battle for the commercial capital. The army’s offensive in Aleppo was focused on Salaheddin district in the southwest, a stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army, said the Syrian Revolution General Commission.

BBC: ‘Thousands trapped’ in Syria city

The UN’s refugee agency has warned that thousands of people are still trapped in Syria’s economic hub, Aleppo, as the army offensive against rebel strongholds continued for a fourth day.

Activists in the city say supplies of food and cooking gas are running low.

Fresh clashes and attacks by helicopter gunships have been reported, but rebels say they have held on to the key district of Salah al-Din.

The UN says 200,000 people have fled the fighting in the city.

But Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR refugee agency, said many more had been unable to leave because they did not have the means to make the journey, or felt it would be too dangerous.

An estimated 15,000-16,600 frightened residents have sought refuge in schools, mosques and public buildings in the city, she said.

“There are 32 schools in Aleppo that we’ve identified and in each of those schools, we have heard, or we have witnessed, that 250-300 people were packed inside, many of these families, kids.

“And then in university dormitories, there are a total of some 7,000 people hoping to seek safety from the continuing shelling.”

Mohammed Saeed, an activist living in the city, told the Associated Press that the situation for residents was “very bad”.

“There is not enough food and people are trying to leave. We really need support from the outside. There is random shelling against civilians,” he said.

“The city has pretty much run out of cooking gas, so people are cooking on open flames or with electricity, which cuts out a lot.”

There are also reports that citizens remaining in the city face long queues for bread.

‘Heavy losses’

On Tuesday, there were fresh reports of clashes and attacks by helicopter gunships in Aleppo as the Syrian army offensive entered its fourth day.

Syrians queuing outside a bakery in the town of Aldana, near Aleppo, on 31 July 2012Long queues for bread have been reported for those in and around Aleppo

State TV said Syrian forces were inflicting heavy losses on “terrorist groups” in Aleppo and also claimed government successes in Homs.

On Monday, it reported that the army had won complete control over Salah al-Din, one of the areas of Aleppo where rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army had become entrenched.

However, one rebel commander in the area, Col Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that the government efforts to gain control of Salah al-Din had failed for three days running.

“It has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Col Oqaidi of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo. He estimated that there were at least 3,000 rebel fighters in the entire city.

Analysts say Salah al-Din provides an important route for Syrian troop reinforcements coming from the south.

Activists also report heavy shelling and helicopter gunship attacks around the Sakhour quarter on the north-east side of Aleppo, as well as near the headquarters of the feared Air Force Intelligence agency, to the west of the city.

The BBC’s Ian Pannell, who has just left Aleppo, says knowing who is firing where is impossible, as gunfire echoes around the city.

State television completely ignored events in Aleppo in its early morning news programmes on Tuesday, the BBC’s Jim Muir in Beirut says, but later bulletins carried reports of Syrian forces inflicting heavy losses on ”terrorist groups” in Aleppo districts.

Correspondents say neither side can afford to lose Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its industrial and financial centre.

Until this month it had been spared the bloodshed seen in other cities since the uprising began in March 2011.

Border security

Meanwhile the US and Turkey have agreed to step up efforts to achieve “political transition” in Syria that would include the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, the White House said.

In a phone call on Monday, US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to help the growing numbers of refugees – both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries.

Turkey has been a staunch critic of President Assad and has given refuge to large numbers of army defectors.

Thousands of Syrian refugees are also living in refugee camps on the Turkish side of the countries’ long border.

Where Syrians are fleeing

Turkey: 44,188 Anxious Turks wait for endgame

Jordan: 36,824 Jordan’s desert refugee camp

Lebanon: 32,796 Defiance at Lebanon frontier

Iraq: 8,445 Iraq pressurised by tribal ties

Estimated internally displaced: 1,000,000

Source: UNHCR, 31 July 2012

Reuters: Syrian aircraft strike Aleppo, rebels claim successes

Photo ALEPPO, Syria – Syrian combat aircraft and artillery pounded Aleppo late into the night as the army battled for control of the country’s biggest city, where rebel fighters said troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had been forced to retreat. 

During the day on Tuesday large clouds of black smoke rose into the sky after attack helicopters turned their machineguns on eastern districts for the first time in the latest fighting and a MiG warplane later strafed the same area.

After nightfall, Reuters journalists in Aleppo heard loud explosions somewhere near the city. At least 10 volleys of shells lit up the night sky and drowned out the sound of the Islamic call to prayer. Carloads of rebel fighters shouting “God is great” sped off towards the fighting.

The battle for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, has become a crucial test for both sides in the 16-month-old rebellion. Neither Assad’s forces nor the rag-tag rebels can afford to lose if they hope to prevail in the wider struggle for Syria.

Syria’s civil war has entered a far more violent phase since July 18 when a bomb killed four top members of President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle. Serious fighting reached Aleppo over the past week and rebels also launched an assault on the capital Damascus in July but were repulsed.

Heavy gunfire echoed around the Salaheddine district in the southwest of the city, scene of some of the worst clashes, with shells raining in for most of the day.

Reuters journalists have established that neither the Syrian army nor rebel fighters are in full control of the quarter, which the government said it had taken on Sunday.

Salaheddine resembled what one journalist called a “ghost town”, its shops shuttered, with no sign of life.

Rebel fighters, some in balaclavas and others with scarves around their faces, fired machineguns and assault rifles around street corners at invisible enemies. Wounded civilians and fighters were carried to makeshift dressing stations.

Syrian state television said on Tuesday troops were still pursuing remaining “terrorists” there – its usual way of describing rebel fighters.

A rebel commander in Aleppo said his fighters’ aim was to push towards the city center, district by district, a goal he believed they could achieve “within days, not weeks”.

The rebels say they now control an arc that covers eastern and southwestern districts.

“The regime has tried for three days to regain Saleheddine, but its attempts have failed and it has suffered heavy losses in human life, weapons and tanks, and it has been forced to withdraw,” said Colonel Abdel-Jabbar al-Oqaidi, head of the Joint Military Council, one of several rebel groups in Aleppo.

Oqaidi told Reuters that more than 3,000 rebel fighters were in Aleppo but would not give a precise number.

The fighting has proved costly for the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, a commercial hub that was slow to join the anti-Assad revolt that has rocked the capital, Damascus, and other cities.

Rebels say they will turn Aleppo into the “grave” of the Assad government. Thousands of residents have fled and those who remain face shortages of food and fuel and the ever-present risk of injury or death.

“We have hardly any power or water, our wives and kids have left us here to watch the house and have gone somewhere safer,” said Jumaa, a 45-year-old construction worker, who complained it was nearly impossible to observe the fasting month of Ramadan.

Makeshift clinics in rebel-held areas struggle to deal with dozens of casualties after more than a week of fighting.

Up to 18,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in Aleppo and many frightened residents were seeking shelter in schools, mosques and public buildings, according to figures given by the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva.

Rebel fighters, patrolling parts of Aleppo in pick-up trucks flying green-white-and-black “independence” flags, face a daunting task in taking on the well-equipped Syrian army, even if the loyalty of some of its troops is in doubt.

Armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades they are up against a military that can deploy fighter jets, helicopter gunships, tanks, armored fighting vehicles, artillery and mortars.

The most powerful military in the region, NATO member Turkey, has been moving armored columns towards the border, although it has given no indication they will cross over.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, once a friend of Assad, has become among his most vocal opponents. Erdogan spoke by phone to U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

“God willing, the brotherly Syrian people and the Middle East will soon be freed from this dictator with blood on his hands, and his regime, which was built on blood,” Erdogan said late on Tuesday in a monthly television address.

“Assad and his bloodstained comrades know well that they have reached the end, and that their fates will not be different from those of previous dictators.”

Assad, a member of the Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, is now opposed by the leaders of other Arab states, nearly all of which are led by Sunni Muslims, as well as by Turkey and the West.

Within the region he retains the support of Shi’ite-led Iran, and in the U.N. Security Council he has been protected by China and Russia.

(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Peter Graff and Michael Roddy)

U.N. General Assembly to meet on Syria crisisUNITED NATIONS – The U.N. General Assembly said on Tuesday it will hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria this week and diplomats say it will likely vote on a Saudi-drafted resolution that condemns the Security Council for failing to take action against Damascus.

New alliance further fractures Syria oppositionCAIRO – A group of exiled Syrian activists announced a new opposition alliance on Tuesday that aims to form a transitional government – a challenge to the Syrian National Council (SNC), a longer established group that they said had failed.

The launch of the “Council for the Syrian Revolution” marks the latest effort by Syria’s divided opposition to forge a political alternative to President Bashar al-Assad whose forces are trying to put down a 16-month armed uprising.

“The brothers have asked me to form a transitional government in Syriaand to begin dialogue with the rest of the Syrian opposition,” Haitham al-Maleh, a former judge, told a Cairo news conference called to unveil the new body.

Maleh told Reuters the new alliance would act as an alternative to the SNC which he said “had failed to help the Syrian revolution”. It would work to get more help to rebels, he said.

Western and Arab states have for months been urging the Syrian opposition to unite. While the SNC has been an international voice for the opposition, activists on the ground have complained that the exiled leadership has little connection to what is happening in Syria.

Maleh, a long-standing dissident against the Assad family’s four decades in power, resigned from the SNC in March, saying he had given up trying to make the group more effective.

“We are not asking for military intervention, such as an invasion, but international protection, such as stopping Syrian planes,” he said.

The Syrian military has stepped up a military campaign to drive rebels out of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city. Outgunned rebel fighters are facing much heavier weapons including helicopter gunships.

“When Aleppo is freed, we will have the northern part of Syria and will ask (the opposition) to return home,” Maleh said.

The Council for the Syrian Revolution comprises 70 opposition figures and will be based in Cairo, with branches in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

“The movement includes members from the Syrian National Council yet its formation is meant to also tell the council that it is not the only body entitled to act on behalf of all the opposition,” said Ahmed Jalal el-Sayed, one of its members.

Reacting to the formation of the new group, SNC head Abdelbasset Seida said all opposition figures were free to work in the way they thought would help the Syrian revolution.

“But the process of forming a transitional government is difficult and needs consultations with all members of the Syrian opposition, rebels and the Free Syrian Army,” Seida told Reuters.

“But if each group came out alone announcing a formation of a new government without talks and research, this would end up in having a series of weak governments that don’t represent anyone and would not be able to mean or do anything,” he said.

“Our end goal is to form a government that would represent and please all members of the Syrian community.”

(Writing by Tom Perry and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Thousands of Syrians trapped in Aleppo: UNHCRGENEVA – Battles between the Syrian army and rebels in Aleppo have forced many terrified civilians to flee the city by perilous routes or take refuge in safer areas, a United Nations official said on Tuesday.

“Thousands of frightened residents are seeking shelter in schools, mosques and public buildings,” said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“These are people that haven’t fled the city as they haven’t had the means or feel it is too dangerous to make that journey and we are getting indications that the journey is fraught with armed gangs and road blocks blocking the way,” she said.

About 7,000 have taken refuge in university dormitories and many more are camped out in 32 schools, each housing 250-350 people, Fleming told a news conference. Her figures suggest a total of 15,000 to 18,000 displaced within Aleppo.

Fighting has raged in the city of 2.5 million for a week. Helicopters fired heavy machineguns at eastern districts on Tuesday, a Reuters reporter in Aleppo said.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Sunday about 200,000 people had fled Aleppo and surrounding areas over the weekend, citing an estimate from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

But that has not produced a flood of refugees into nearby Turkey, about 50 km (30 miles) from Aleppo, with only 2,000 crossing the border in the past four days, the UNHCR said.

“Many report difficulties along the route, including snipers and road blocks, which may be hindering others from making the journey,” the agency said.

Thousands of Iraqi refugees in Syria are heading home to escape the violence now convulsing the country where they found sanctuary following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The UNHCR said 20,000 had returned to Iraq in the past 10 days.

Many of the Iraqis left from Aleppo, according to the International Organisation for Migration, which said more than 2,800 Syrians had also sought refuge in Iraq, a journey that returnees say costs about $300 by taxi or $100 by bus.

Iraq now hosts more than 12,000 Syrian refugees, far fewer than the more than 30,000 registered in each of Lebanon and Jordan, and more than 44,000 in Turkey, part of an overall total of 129,000 Syrians who have registered with UNHCR.

The total number of Syrians who have quit the country is far higher, with an estimated 150,000 in Jordan alone. The IOM is expanding Jordan’s Zaatari camp, which can hold 5,000 refugees to enable it to take 150,000, in case of a mass exodus.

Between 10,000 and 25,000 Syrians have fled to Algeria, where they do not require visas, Fleming said, citing information from the Algerian government. But on 70 of them have contacted the UNHCR in the North African country.

A U.N. official said most of those in Algeria were from Damascus and, with flights out of Syria becoming rarer, many had flown from Beirut or Amman after crossing the border.

The UNHCR has registered another 1,305 Syrian refugees in Egypt and 400 in Morocco.

U.N. agencies bracing for an exodus from Syria doubled the size of their humanitarian aid plan a month ago to cater for 185,000 refugees by the end of 2012.

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Additional reporting by Robert Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon)

Guardian: Syria’s rebels add explosives expertise to guerrilla tactics

Syrian rebel fighters pose on a destroyed tank31 Jul 2012: Commanders use insurgency methods but rage at being compared to al-Qaida, saying if anyone is a terrorist it is Assad

Syria‘s opposition fighters are increasingly using Iraqi-style roadside bombs in their war against Bashar al-Assad, most recently blowing up tanks in a large convoy travelling to attack rebels inside Aleppo.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders told the Guardian the use of improvised explosive devices has gone up in recent months, with fighters growing increasingly adept at bomb-making. Iraqi insurgents used roadside bombs extensively in their campaign against the US military.

FSA commanders said a secret network of informers inside the Syrian army and other parts of the regime passed on regular information on troop movements, allowing the rebels to strike at the army.

Syrian state TV said on Tuesday that government forces were inflicting heavy losses on “terrorist groups” in and around Aleppo.

FSA sources said they had captured several police stations in the city. The Local Co-ordination Committees, an activist network, reported shelling in several areas. The UN said thousands of people were trapped.

Government forces were also reported to have shelled targets in Damascus and the surrounding region as well as Deir el-Zour, Deraa, Homs, Idlib and Latakia.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have asked Haitham al-Maleh, a veteran dissident, to lead a government-in-exile that will replace Assad when he falls. The decision to set up a rebel-led administration reflects the end of hopes for a negotiated transition, part of Kofi Annan’s now moribund UN-backed peace plan.

The mood on the ground is increasingly that Syria’s future will be settled by war. Mohamad Baree, a commander in the northern town of Korkanaya, said his fighters ambushed a tank column at 5am on 29 July as it left Idlib. The 20 tanks and armoured vehicles had been sent to reinforce government positions in Aleppo, part-seized by the rebels nine days earlier.

“We used five or six self-made bombs and destroyed two of the tanks. The other 18 returned to Idlib,” he said. The bombs were set off remotely by rebels hidden behind rocks.

The operation, though a success, had tragic consequences: a retreating tank fired a shell into a fifth-storey flat in Idlib, killing five members of a family. “They [the regime soldiers] were afraid. They didn’t know what was happening. They wanted revenge,” Baree said.

The commander, a pharmacist who spent seven years living in Ukraine, said he personally lacked the skills to make bombs. But he said that a “professor of chemistry” was aiding the rebels, and that other members of his unit who had served in the Syrian military possessed bomb-making skills. “We also take bombs from army bases. They are better than ours,” he admitted.

His remarks are evidence that the FSA is becoming more professional. It began as a disparate group of volunteers, many of them with no military experience. But after 16 months of operations against the Damascus government it now resembles a formidable military force.

Baree said each FSA region had its own five-member “war council” to determine strategy and targets. The units – typically of about 150 militia volunteers – also included medics, information officers and activists who videoed battles, he said.

Baree also confirmed the rebels were receiving arms from outside Syria – Qatar and Saudi Arabia have both allegedly supplied weapons. Meanwhile, Moscow is arming the Assad regime and delivering lethal attack helicopters, used above Aleppo.

But he said shipments from abroad were haphazard. He complained his unit had so far received nothing whatsoever. “We don’t have enough bullets. I had to buy my own Kalashnikov for $200. It’s of very poor quality,” he said, showing off his weapon. He said two containers of arms sent by Sunni political groups in Lebanon had recently arrived in Idlib province, much of it now controlled by the FSA, but were not being shared out.

Another commander, Mohamad Hadeti, said the FSA rebels in control of Aleppo’s southern and eastern suburbs were “super strong”. “They are well-armed,” he said. “There is a big number of fighters there. They have enough ammunition, including 14.7mm anti-aircraft guns.”

He added: “Assad will step up the war [in Aleppo]. But his soldiers won’t come out of there.”

The rebels seized eight tanks and 10 armoured vehicles on Tuesday, as well as mortars and other ammunition, after overrunning a military base at Anadan, six miles outside the city.

Sitting in what used to be Korkanaya’s Ba’ath party HQ – now used by the rebels – Baree said he resented attempts to portray Syria’s revolution as al-Qaida-style.

Assad’s regime insists it is not fighting a domestic insurgency but “Islamist extremists” or “terrorists” funded and armed by the country’s enemies, including the US and Israel.

The commander, however, said he and other fighters had only reluctantly left their civilian jobs and taken up arms when it became clear Assad was refusing to leave power peacefully. He said the struggle against Assad was broad-based, enjoyed support from all of Syria’s religious groups, including some Alawites – Assad’s ruling sect – and was an internal rather than foreign-driven struggle.

“This is a people’s revolution,” he said. “It’s a lie to say we are al-Qaida. What’s happening in Syria is no different from the French or the Russian revolutions. If anyone is al-Qaida it’s Bashar. After the revolution anyone with blood on their hands will face justice. But we don’t want religious or civil war. I have Alawite friends. I talk to them on Facebook. They don’t like what Assad is doing either.”

Baree said he had broken off contact with one Sunni friend, a teacher, who supported the regime. He acknowledged there was an Islamic element to the revolution – “We are Muslims at the end of the day” – but said he wanted “decent Islam” and democratic government once Assad was gone. “We don’t want to combine religion and politics.”

He also said women were contributing to the revolution. “Women give us information and clothes. And in one or two cases they are even fighting against the regime.”

Turkey must work with Syria’s Kurds31 Jul 2012: Ranj Alaaldin: While Turkey may be threatened by Kurdish gains in Syria, there’s little it can do to prevent an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan

Turkey’s support for the uprising against Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has been challenged during the last week or so as Kurds in the north-east of Syria have taken control of several towns and cities.

The ploy, if it succeeds, will bring a further extension of Kurdish automony in the Middle East, complementing Iraq’s booming Kurdistan region, where 5 million Kurds govern themselves as a federal entity within Iraq and with minimal interference from the central government in Baghdad.

The problem from Turkey’s perspective is two-fold: firstly, a Syrian Kurdistan alongside Iraqi Kurdistan will encourage Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population to demand greater political and human rights, as well as embolden their demands for autonomy from the rest of Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurds, numbering more than 13 million, are a far more sizeable group than their fellow Kurds in Iraq, Syria and Iran. As in Syria, Turkey’s Kurds have been targeted through oppressive measures that have suppressed their cultural, political and human rights.

The second problem for Turkey relates to the Kurdistan Workers party(PKK), a guerilla movement that has fought the Turkish state over the past 40 years. Initially the PKK sought autonomy for Turkey’s marginalised Kurds but later turned to demanding greater political and human rights, following the imprisonment of the organisation’s leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 and the movement’s eventual decline.

A Syrian Kurdistan, however, would offer a lifeline to the PKK in the same way the uprising in Syria has provided an opportunity for other political movements to assert their presence. Further, the PKK is closely linked in Syria to the Democratic Union party (PYD) which controls most of the liberated areas as part of a broader coalition of Kurdish parties in Syria, known as the People’s Council for Western Kurdistan (PCWK). The other main Kurdish opposition bloc of parties is called the Kurdish National Council (KNC).

In other words, Turkey fears north-eastern Syria becoming a bastion for its long-time enemy the PKK (and its sister movement the PYD), fearing that this will supplement existing PKK strongholds in the rugged mountains of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which it has sought to eliminate – but without success – over the past 30 years through umpteen military incursions.

The Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, acknowledged these concerns last week, stating that Turkey would “not allow a terrorist group to establish camps in northern Syria and threaten Turkey”. However, there is little Turkey can do.

Politically, if and when Assad falls, Turkey may continue to encourage the Arab-led opposition to resist Kurdish political and territorial demands but that hinges on the leverage that those forces will have in Kurdish-held areas. So far, Kurdish opposition fighters have prevented the Free Syrian Army from entering Syrian Kurdish territory.

It will also depend on the extent to which Arabs can be unified and whether a smooth transitional process follows Assad’s downfall. Both are unlikely. While the rest of Syria will probably be embroiled in post-conflict infighting and instability, the Syrian Kurds – like the Iraqi Kurds after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein – are more likely to be remedying internal divisions, organising themselves and stabilising their region to create a buffer between a far more stable Syrian Kurdistan and the rest of a tumultuous Syria.

Here, the Kurds would be aided by brethren in Iraqi Kurdistan, where President Masoud Barzani has been training Syrian Kurdish fighters, as well as possibly by Iran and Iraq, which will be looking for new partners in the post-Assad Syria.

Turkey may, therefore, look to its military to restrict Kurdish autonomy and the PYD’s influence. However, that is easier said than done. Firstly, pursuing PYD targets before the Assad regime falls could provoke a response from Damascus and radically transform the uprising into a direct military confrontation between the two states. Secondly, the PYD cannot single-handedly control the whole of Syria’s Kurdish region and must instead operate with other groupings, some of which Turkey will deem more acceptable.

Finally, Russia and Iran, who would also be looking to protect their own strategic interests and leverage in a new Syria, would fiercely reject any Turkish military advancement. They would be telling Turkey that it cannot on the one hand call for regime change and yet, on the other hand, prevent a pluralistic Syria from emerging. Iran would also be reminding Turkey of its decision to turn a blind eye to the sectarian Sunni Islamic fundamentalist presence in Syria, which Iran views as a direct threat.

As a consequence, Turkey’s best hope is to work in co-operation with Syria’s Kurds, accepting that this will be far more constructive and effective than trying to prevent the unpreventable: the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey’s previous experience with the Iraqi Kurds shows that this approach works and that it is the only plausible option in a region that looks set to finally gift the Kurds with the opportunities that have eluded them for decades.