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Syria blasts Aleppo from above

8:19 AM, Oct 4, 2012   |    comments
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ALEPPO PROVINCE, SYRIA -- The Syrian government's army has been driven out of many areas in this province, a stronghold of the opposition forces arrayed against Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

Even so, it would be a mistake to call this a liberated zone. Unable to make much headway on the ground, the Syrian air force is hitting back with increasing ferocity, dropping bombs from planes and helicopters and chasing the civilians who are trying to get out of the war.

Abu Muhammad left Aleppo when the Free Syrian Army stormed the city. He says he believed he was escaping the air bombardments in a refugee camp near the Turkey border.

"We run out when we hear the helicopters. There is nowhere safe in Syria, but the situation in the camps in Turkey is also very difficult. We are staying here until the battle stops," he says.

Wednesday, Turkey struck back. According to the Turkish prime minister's office, Turkish artillery fired on Syrian targets after deadly shelling from the Syrian side hit a Turkish border, killing five people.

"Our armed forces at the border region responded to this atrocious attack with artillery fire on points in Syria that were detected with radar, in line with the rules of engagement," the Turkish government said in a statement.

In Aleppo, three suicide bombers detonated cars packed with explosives in a government-controlled area, killing at least 34 people, leveling buildings and trapping survivors under the rubble, state TV said.

The Syrian government's increased use of fighter jets to strike civilian areas has led to a dramatic rise in the death toll in recent months and sent a flood of refugees to Turkey's border.

Warplanes dump bombs that can blow up whole buildings or strafe people with automatic weapons fire. August was the deadliest month in the conflict. Activist groups report about 5,000 deaths.

Amnesty International found that 166 civilians, including 48 children and 20 women, had been killed and hundreds wounded in "indiscriminate" airstrikes in the first half of September in 26 towns and villages in the Idlib, Jabal al-Zawiya and north Hama regions in northern Syria.

The rebels have tried to hit back at the airfields to prevent the aircraft from taking off. One such facility, the Menagh military airfield, lies within rebel-held territory, a few miles north of Aleppo.

"It's a fortress," says Abu Ahmed, a coordinator for the FSA, as he points at the high-walled airfield in the distance. "We have tried many times to take it. Any fighter who has a good idea about how to take it gets to try it out - no matter how crazy it sounds.

Mahmoud al-Sayad, a business owner before the conflict started, lives close enough to hear the jets taking off from Menagh. He has lost one son to the war; his other son is away fighting with the FSA.

"The aim of the airstrikes is to break the will of the people," he says. "Every day more bombs come. What can we do? They didn't bomb Israel this much."

The Syrian air force has close to 400 combat aircraft in service and 70 attack helicopters, many supplied by Russia.

The lightly armed rebels have had success going against Assad's ground forces but say they are powerless against the air supremacy enjoyed by the regime.

They say that if the international community enforced a no-fly zone as was done in Libya, they could prevail. The Obama administration has refused the request, saying it would widen the conflict.

Robert Danin, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, doesn't see the political will for a no-fly zone.

"There seems to be very little support within the international community for military intervention in Syria of any sort," says Danin, a former State Department official. "It is tragic."

The anti-Assad fighters in Syria are angry at what they see as hand-wringing and little action.

Promised small arms and communication equipment have not appeared, they say.

"Just give us some Stingers at least," Abu Ahmed says with a frustrated laugh, referring to shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. "We will take care of the rest."

Abu Muhammad, 61, waits to return home while living in an abandoned school with his family, which includes three grandchildren. Seventeen others share the space in one of the dusty villages on the road heading north from Aleppo.

He asks one of his grandsons, Khaled, 12, to lift up his shirt.

The boy shows off a scar that runs in a straight line up from his belly button to the bottom of his ribcage - the result of a piece of shrapnel from an airstrike.

"We have suffered a lot," Abu says quietly.

Associated Press

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