Syria presses heavy air bombardment of rebels

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian warplanes fired missiles at opposition strongholds around Damascus and in the north on Wednesday as Turkey, a key backer of the anti-regime rebels, appeared to distance itself from an earlier call to impose a no-fly zone.

The Syrian regime has intensified airstrikes in recent days following the failure of a U.N.-backed holiday truce over a four-day holiday that never took hold. Activists said at least 110 people were killed nationwide in airstrikes, artillery shelling and fighting Wednesday.

Wednesday's casualties pushed the death toll since the conflict began in March 2011 to more than 36,000, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Much of the violence took place in rebellious suburbs of the capital Damascus and in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. The Observatory said government jets carried out multiple strikes in the eastern Ghouta district, a rebel stronghold close to the capital.

Airstrikes also hit the rebel-held city of Maaret al-Numan, according to Observatory, which gathers reports from a network of activists on the ground. The city straddles a key supply route from Damascus to Aleppo and has become a main front in the civil war.

In the past weeks, the regime has intensified airstrikes on rebel positions and strongholds, particularly Maaret al-Numan, a city of 180,000 people that fell to rebel forces on Oct. 10. A former resident of the city said more than 70 homes have been leveled as a result of air bombardments this week alone.

"The Syrian air force doesn't leave the skies. When the warplane goes, the helicopter comes," the resident who identified himself as Ahmad told The Associated Press in a phone interview. He spoke from a nearby village and would only give his first name for fear of reprisals from the regime.

Most of the city's inhabitants have fled due to heavy fighting, Ahmad said.

"Everyone has fled, you can't live here anymore," Ahmad said, adding that rebel groups, including the al-Qaida inspired Jabhat al-Nusra, had flocked to the area to defend it.

A bomb hidden in a garbage bag exploded in an area near Damascus that is home to a Shiite Muslim shrine, killing 11 people and wounding 39, state-run news agency SANA said. The blast was in a suburb of the capital housing the golden-domed shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad's granddaughter, which is popular with Iranian worshippers and tourists.

SANA also reported a car bomb explosion in the Damascus suburb of Moaddamiya and said it said caused several casualties.

By late Wednesday, the Observatory had reported more than 130 casualties nationwide, more than 40 of them government soldiers.

The U.N. refugee agency, meanwhile, said it delivered badly needed humanitarian aid to internally displaced Syrians in the northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib, as well as in Homs in the center of the country and Hassakeh and Raqqa in the northeast.

Speaking in Jordan, UNHCR's regional spokesman Ron Redmond said cooking materials, blankets, mattresses, and sanitary supplies were delivered to almost 3,000 Syrians who fled the fighting in the past weeks and have been left homeless.

The international community remains at a loss about how to stop the war in Syria. The U.S. and other Western and Arab nations have called on Assad to step down, while China and Russia have stood by the regime and blocked moves to censure Syria at the U.N. Security Council. Iran also backs the regime.

Internationally sanctioned cease-fires have failed and world powers appear to have stepped away from previous talk of imposing a no-fly zone or setting up a safe area in the country's north for civilians fleeing the violence.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a harsh critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said any such moves would need to come from the Security Council.

"This subject is something for the U.N. Security Council to decide," Erdogan said. "If the U.N. hasn't made this decision, we have no authority, no right to declare such a zone in northern Syria."

Erdogan said the experience of imposing a no-fly zone over Iraq to strike at Saddam Hussein had shown it came at a high price.

Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, lashed out at Turkey, accusing it of "destructive policies" against Damascus. He said support for the rebels from Turkey and Arab Gulf nations has fueled the violence, SANA reported.

The U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to solicit Beijing's support for international efforts to stop the bloodshed. Brahimi said he hoped "China can play an active role in solving the events in Syria."

Yang said that China is willing to work with the international community to make continuous efforts to achieve a "fair, peaceful and appropriate" resolution, according to Xinhua.


Associated Press writer Zeina Karam in Beirut and Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.

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