BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian rebels warned on Friday they will target the international airport of the northern city of Aleppo after firing at an airliner preparing to take off, the first direct attack on civilian a flight in the 21-month-old revolt.
Thursday’s attack was another sign of the growing confidence of rebels who are also fighting an offensive in the central province of Hama, pursuing a string of territorial gains to try to cut army supply lines and pressure the capital Damascus to the south.
A rebel commander who gave his name as Khaldoun told Reuters by Skype that snipers from the Intelligence Armed Struggle Battalion, part of the Islamist Jundallah brigade, had hit the wheels of Syrian Airways flight RB201 on Thursday.
“Those were warning shots,” he said, adding that the plane had been unable to take off. “We wanted to send a message to the regime that all their planes - military and civilian - are within our reach.”
There was no immediate mention of the incident on Syrian state media.
Rebels accuse the government of using civilian aircraft to transport weapons and Iranian fighters who they say are helping President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Insurgents have cut off many of the road links to Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city.
Fighting around Damascus has made the road to the capital’s international airport unsafe for traffic. Foreign airlines have stopped flying there. According to flight schedules, the Cairo-bound RB201 usually flies from Damascus rather than Aleppo.
“What happened with Damascus airport will happen to Aleppo, even if the price is higher,” Khaldoun said.
Another rebel urged civilians not to use Aleppo airport or Syrian Air flights “as they will be targets from now on”.
“SCUD-TYPE MISSILES” FIRED
The rebels have scored advances across the country, announcing on Friday they had taken over Rayhaneya town in rural Damascus and several other towns in Hama.
Western powers and some regional countries fear that the more the Syrian government is weakened the more dangerous its response may become.
In what he described as acts of “a desperate regime approaching collapse”, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that Assad’s forces had fired more Scud-type missiles. “I can confirm that we have detected the launch of Scud-type missiles. We strongly regret that act.”
A NATO source said there had been multiple launches of Scud-type missiles inside Syria on Thursday morning.
A video posted on Youtube showed what appeared to be Syrian soldiers firing a long-range missile which opposition activists said was a Scud, launched last week. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video or dates and location.
Rasmussen said the Scud launches justified NATO’s decision to dispatch Patriot anti-missile systems to NATO ally Turkey - a deployment criticized by Syria, Iran and Russia.
“The fact that such missiles are used in Syria emphasizes the need for effective defense protection of our ally Turkey,” he told reporters at NATO headquarters.
“The recent launch of missiles has not hit Turkish territory but of course there is a potential threat and this is exactly the reason why NATO allies decided to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey,” he said.
Syrian forces shelled the town of Moadamiah southwest of Damascus on Friday, killing at least 15 people and wounding dozens who were taking refuge in a residential compound.
“They fired several rockets at the neighborhood where hundreds of people were hiding. The field hospitals are now unable to take in more wounded. The numbers are big,” said Murad al-Shami from Damascus.
The revolt against Assad began with peaceful protests calling for greater freedoms but after a heavy security crackdown turned into a civil war largely pitting the Sunni majority against the Alawite sect to which Assad belongs.
Other minorities like Druze, Christians and Shi‘ites fear for their freedoms with the growing influence of Sunni Islamist hardliners in the armed revolt.
Opposition activists and rebels said on Friday they were trying to defuse tension between Druze in Sweida province and Sunni fighters from neighboring Deraa province, cradle of revolt against Assad.
The reason behind the confrontation was not immediately clear, but an activist said it started when fighters attacked a government checkpoint in Sweida killing and kidnapping several people, several of them Druze. Residents in the area were angered and in return attacked and kidnapped rebels.
“They exchanged kidnappings and threats but everybody is working on sorting it out,” a Druze activist said.
Sweida, home to Syria’s Druze minority, is solidly under state control. Most Syrian Druze have stayed on the sidelines of the revolt.
“What happened in the past days breaks the heart and is unacceptable to any free man ... We are confident that we will get out of it,” said Mouaz Alkhatib, leader of the newly formed opposition coalition.
“Clashes between neighbors and brothers mean one thing - weakening the revolution and empowering the regime,” he said in a statement. “I call on all my people and loved ones to look for a brotherly solution and not to threaten (each other) or kidnap civilians and innocent people”.
Editing by Jon Hemming