BEIRUT (Reuters) - At least 54 people were killed when a jet fighter blew up a fuel station amid heavy fighting between government and rebel forces in northern Syria on Thursday, a British-based monitoring group said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria reporting on government violence during the 18-month-old revolt, cited an activist in al-Raqqa province as saying more than 110 people were dead or wounded.
A video published by activists, said to be from al-Raqqa, showed black clouds of smoke rising from the wreckage of the petrol station as bewildered residents examined the scene following the attack by an air force jet.
Government forces shelled rebels near a border crossing with Turkey some 30 km (18 miles) away on the northern fringes of al-Raqqa, a day after it was seized by the insurgents.
A Reuters witness on the Turkish side of the border heard heavy gunfire and explosions close to the Tel Abyad border post, where an opposition flag still fluttered. Residents rushed towards the border as the gunfire intensified.
It was impossible to verify the authenticity of the activists’ video, and most foreign journalists are barred entry into Syria, making accounts of events difficult to confirm.
President Bashar al-Assad has used helicopters and fighter jets against areas where insurgents have been operating, including residential districts of the capital and other cities.
Assad’s forces have targeted petrol stations in rural towns and villages and along main roads to deprive rebels of fuel. Civilians have set up smaller, discreet fuel outlets.
In comments to Egyptian magazine Al-Ahram Al-Araby, published in its Friday edition, Assad said “the armed groups exercise terrorism against the state. They are not popular within society ... they will not be victorious in the end”.
But he added that the “door to dialogue remains open”. “Change cannot be achieved through foreign intervention,” he said.
Activists say more than 27,000 people have been killed in a conflict which began with peaceful street protests that provoked a harsh military crackdown and mushroomed into civil war. Last month was the bloodiest yet.
Earlier on Thursday, Syria’s information ministry said a Syrian military helicopter that crashed near the capital had clipped the tail of a Syrian Arab Airlines passenger plane, but the 200 people on board escaped unharmed.
“The helicopter struck the tail of the plane ... The control tower at Damascus airport confirmed that the plane landed safely at Damascus airport and all 200 passengers are in good health,” a statement published on the state news channel Syria TV said.
On the ground, security forces surrounded and raided a rebellious southern district of Damascus, arresting more than 100 people, and activists said several others were shot dead.
An opposition activist called Abu Salam, who lives in the Yarmouk district where rebels have been hiding out in recent days, told Reuters many residents were trapped.
He said tanks and soldiers had sealed all the entrances and hundreds of soldiers were searching the area on foot and on trucks mounted with heavy machineguns.
“We are hiding in our homes. I am afraid to leave the house so I am sitting here waiting to see if they reach my street, if I will be arrested or shot dead,” he said, adding that two men and a young woman were shot dead when soldiers saw them running out of a park on Thursday morning.
He said another five rebels found hiding were executed.
A resident who toured Yarmouk a day earlier said rebel fighters, flushed out of surrounding districts, had moved into a southern section of the district and came under intense army bombardment overnight.
Assad has long maintained that foreign-backed militants have been leading the revolt.
State media said soldiers had killed 100 Afghan “terrorists” in the city of Aleppo. Rebels dismissed that, saying the district of Bustan al-Qasr - where the attack supposedly took place - had not been entered by Assad’s troops.
Iran and Russia back Assad, while the United States and European allies want him toppled but have shrunk from intervening in a conflict steeped in ethnic and sectarian rivalries that could spill over borders and inflame the wider Middle East.
Iraq denied on Thursday a Western intelligence report that Iranian aircraft and trucks had transported weapons and military personnel through Iraq to Syria to help Assad and Belarus denied trying to sell weapons to Syria.
“Iraq has confirmed that it will never be involved or helping or allowing any shipment via its air space or land to Syria,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.
The allegation, reported by Reuters on Wednesday, said arms transfers were organized by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.
Syria’s upheaval is a political headache for Iraq’s Shi‘ite Muslim-led government. Close to Assad’s ally, Shi‘ite Iran, Baghdad has resisted joining Western and Gulf Arab calls for the authoritarian leader, whose family has ruled for 42 years, to bow out while also calling for a reform process in Syria.
Baghdad’s core concern is that a precipitous fall of Assad would fracture Syria along sectarian lines and yield a hostile, hardline Sunni Muslim regime that could stir up Iraq’s combustible Sunni-Shi‘ite communal mix.
Belarus denied trying to sell weapons to Syria and violating a U.N. Security Council resolution after the United States imposed sanctions on a Belarussian state-owned firm.
“All the accusations of the American side ... have no basis and are untrue,” a spokesman said.
The Syrian rebels are being armed by Sunni Muslim states including Saudi Arabia and receive other supplies and diplomatic support from Western powers and Turkey.
Additional reporting by Mehmet Caliskan in Akcakale, Ayat Basma and Dominic Evans in Beirut, Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk; Writing by Oliver Holmes; Editing by Andrew Roche