Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 December 2014

Syria: Fears grow of new massacre as UN warns of civil war

Observers are prevented from reaching suspected scene of atrocities in al-Haffa

Syrians look at a destroyed military tank at the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria
Syrians look at a destroyed military tank at the northern town of Ariha, on the outskirts of Idlib, Syria
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. (Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE
Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
A shell is seen in a street at a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Monday June 11, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
Free Syrian Army fighters swim in a pool on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12, 2012. On Tuesday, Syrian forces pelted the eastern city of Deir el-Zour with mortars as anti-government protesters were dispersing before dawn Tuesday, killing several people, activists said. The offensives were part of an escalation of violence in recent weeks that has brought more international pressure on President Bashar Assad's regime faces over its brutal tactics against the opposition. The U.N. accused the government of using children as human shields in a new report. (AP Photo)
In this image made from amateur video released by Shaam News Network and accessed Monday, June 11, 2012, purports to show smoke near a mosque from Syrian government forces shelling in Rastan town in Homs province, Syria. Syrian troops attacked a central, rebel-held town with helicopter gunships Monday and shelled other restive areas across the nation, activists said. The aerial assault targeted the strategic river crossing town of Rastan, which has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video) TV OUT, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CANNOT INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE CONTENT, DATE, LOCATION OR AUTHENTICITY OF THIS MATERIAL
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners carrying the coffins of Syrian citizens killed in shelling by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
This citizen journalism image released by Sham News Network taken on Saturday June 9, 2012, purports to show anti-Syrian regime mourners raising their hands as they carry the coffins of Syrian citizens killed by Syrian troops, in Daraa, Syria. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, tens died in heavy pre-dawn shelling on Saturday in Daraa, where the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. (AP Photo) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS CITIZEN JOURNALIST IMAGE
In this image made available on Tuesday June 12, 2012 smoke rises from a residential area of Talbisah in Homs city Syria Saturday June 9, 2012. (AP Photo/David Manyua/United Nations )
This video image taken from amateur video and broadcast by Bambuser/Homslive shows a series of devastating explosions rocking the central Syrian city of Homs, Syria, Monday, June 11, 2012. Live streaming video caught the devastation during one of the heaviest examples of violence since the uprisings began over a year ago. ( Photo/Bambuser/Homslive via AP video) MANDATORY CREDIT: BAMBUSER/HOMSLIVE

A leading UN official said yesterday that the conflict in Syria now constitutes a full-blown civil war as the regime desperately tried to wrest back control of rebel-held areas, including a coastal town in the north-west where there are fears that another massacre may be unfolding.

As pro-government villagers armed with metal rods and rocks prevented international observers from reaching the Sunni town of al-Haffa, in the regime's Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast, the UN UnderSecretary for Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, said that the conflict, in which around 13,000 people are estimated to have been killed, can now be defined as a civil war.



"Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas," he said.



As a Free Syrian Army stronghold with a population of around 30,000 nestled in the foothills just 15km from the Assad dynasty's home town of Qardahah, al-Haffa is strategically important and has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past week.



Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, joined Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, in urging the government to allow monitors into the besieged town. However, the monitoring mission said its efforts were thwarted once again, with its cars later coming under fire.



"Observers trying to reach the town of al-Haffa were confronted with angry crowds that surrounded their vehicles," said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the UN monitoring mission. "The crowd, who appeared to be residents of the area, then hurled stones and metal rods. As [observers] were leaving the area, three vehicles heading towards Idlib were fired upon." Ms Ghosheh said the source of the gunfire was unclear. Syrian state television claimed that the observers' cars had run over and injured three residents in Latakia province outside al-Haffa, as they tried to explain the suffering caused by "terrorist groups". The UN declined to comment.



With mobile phone networks in al- Haffa blocked and limited information seeping out, it is difficult to ascertain how many have died. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 52 people, including 29 civilians, have been killed in the past week.



Rebels have said they are attempting to create safe passages to smuggle the wounded out of the town, where US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the army "may be organising another massacre" after mass killings in villages such as Houla, in Homs province.



The Syrian government reacted with anger to the US claims, accusing it of "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.

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