Syria air force bombs cities, truce "practically over"
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian jets bombarded Sunni Muslim regions in Damascus and around the country on Sunday, activists said, as President Bashar al-Assad kept up air strikes against rebels despite a U.N.-brokered truce that now appears to be in tatters.
The Local Coordination Committees activists' organization said air raids killed 14 civilians, including women and children, in the town of Bara in the northern province of Idlib, where fighting has continued between Assad's forces and rebels who have seized large parts of the rugged region.
"The ceasefire is practically over. Damascus has been under brutal air raids since day one and hundreds of people have been arrested," said veteran opposition campaigner Fawaz Tello, who is well connected with rebels.
Speaking from Berlin, Tello said Sunni districts in the city of Homs, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus and surrounding countryside came under Syrian army shelling on Sunday.
It was not possible to verify events because of Syrian restrictions on media access.
Both sides in the 19-month-old conflict have violated the ceasefire to mark the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Brokered by international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, the truce supposedly began on Friday, the first day of the four-day holiday.
Syrian authorities blame "terrorists" for breaking the truce and the opposition says a ceasefire is impossible while Assad moves tanks and uses artillery and jets against populated areas.
A statement by the Syrian military said "blatant" rebel violations proved they want to "fragment and destroy Syria".
"These terrorist groups must be confronted, their remnants chased and an iron fist used to exterminate them and save the homeland from their evil," the statement said.
Brahimi hopes to end the conflict that has killed at least 32,000 people and further destabilized the Middle East. It began with a popular revolt in March last year against four decades of authoritarian rule by Assad and his late father, Hafez al-Assad.
The ceasefire won international support, including from Russia, China and Iran, President Assad's main foreign allies.
But the truce seems destined to share the fate of failed peace efforts that have preceded it, with dozens of people continuing to be killed daily and international and regional powers at odds while they back different sides.
A sectarian divide between Assad's minority Alawite sect and Syria's majority Sunnis is also growing, fuelling religious fervor and attracting more foreign jihadists into the country.
In the capital Damascus, activists and residents reported explosions and smoke rising over the city as Syrian airforce jets bombed the suburbs of Zamalka, Irbin, Harasta and Zamalka.
"I saw one jet flying high, away from the anti-aircraft guns of the rebels, then it swooped and fired rockets," said one witness, a resident of Damascus who did not want to be named.
Video taken by activists purportedly showed flattened buildings in Irbin, their floors sandwiched and debris filling the streets.
A statement by the Harasta Media Office, an opposition activist group, said aerial and ground bombardments had killed at least 45 people in the district since Friday.
Electricity, water and communications had been cut and dozens of wounded at the Harasta National Hospital had been moved as the bombardment closed in, the statement said.
Activists also reported fighting in the suburb of Douma to the northeast, where Free Syrian Army fighters have been attacking roadblocks manned by forces loyal to the government.
Two car bombs went off in the Damascus neighborhoods of Sbeineh and Barzeh, which have been active in the revolt, resulting mostly in material damage, activists said.
Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, which is distantly related to Shi'ite Islam. It has dominated majority-Sunni Syria since the 1960s, when Alawite officers assumed control of a military junta that had taken power in a coup.
Warplanes also hit towns and villages in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, where rebels have been trying to press their advantage in rural areas by cutting off supply lines to the major cities, none of which has fallen completely under opposition control.
Fighting was reported in Aleppo, Syria's industrial and commercial hub. Rebels attacked road blocks manned by Assad's loyalists and a 20-year-old girl was killed in army bombardment on Suleiman al-Halabi neighbourhood, opposition activists said.
Rebel attempts to portray themselves as a united alternative to Assad suffered a setback when clashes occurred on Saturday between opposition fighters and members of the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in Ashrafieh. The Kurdish district of Aleppo had up to now stayed out of fighting.
Mouhaimen al-Rumaid, coordinator for the Syrian Rebel Front, said fighting began when PKK fighters helped Assad forces defend a compound in Ashrafieh that came under rebel attack.
Rumaid said scores of people were killed and rebels seized dozens of suspected PKK members.
"The Ashrafieh incident has to be contained because it could extend to other areas in the northeast where the PKK is well organized," he said.
(Editing by Rosalind Russell and Jason Webb)