AMMAN/ALEPPO (Reuters) - Syrian fighter planes made rare sorties on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, killing at least 60 people in its eastern suburbs, the same day a Syrian military helicopter crashed while under rebel fire, activists said.
They said aerial attacks by at least two fighter planes late on Monday had targeted the neighborhood of Zemalka and the more easterly suburb of Saqba where Free Syrian Army fighters had attacked and overrun several army roadblocks earlier in the day.
Both suburbs are poor and inhabited predominantly by Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria’s population and have been at the forefront of fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.
Video footage seen by a Reuters reporter of the aftermath of an attack by one of the planes firing rockets at an apartment building showed people running away with their children and the six-storey building collapsed like an accordion.
Syrian authorities have banned entry to most foreign media, making it impossible to verify accounts by activists and residents of activity in the capital.
The focus of the 17-month struggle appears to have returned to the outskirts of the capital after weeks of battles centered on the northern city of Aleppo.
Opposition activists said earlier at least 62 people had been killed in an assault on suburbs of Damascus on Monday, some summarily executed, a day after they accused Assad’s troops and sectarian militia of massacring hundreds of people in the neighboring town of Daraya.
At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the Daraya killings as “an appalling and brutal crime” that should be independently investigated immediately.
Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, preparing to make his debut on the stage of world diplomacy, called on Monday for Assad’s allies to help lever the Syrian leader out of power.
“Now is the time to stop this bloodshed and for the Syrian people to regain their full rights and for this regime that kills its people to disappear from the scene,” Mursi told Reuters in his first interview with an international news organization before embarking on a trip to China and Iran.
“There is no room to talk about reform, but the discussion is about change,” Mursi said.
Syria’s state television confirmed a helicopter had crashed in Damascus on Monday but gave no details. Opposition activists said rebels had shot it down; opposition video footage showed a crippled aircraft burning up and crashing into a built-up area, sending up a pillar of oily black smoke.
The possible shooting down of the helicopter, the latest of several such successes claimed by lightly armed rebel fighters, bolstered morale in their 17-month struggle battle to bring down Assad. However, even more intense army bombardments followed the helicopter crash, witnesses said.
“It was flying over the eastern part of the city and firing all morning,” an activist calling himself Abu Bakr told Reuters from near where the helicopter came down in the eastern suburbs. “The rebels had been trying to hit it for about an hour,” he said. “Finally they did.”
Video footage carried the sound of people celebrating the helicopter’s dive with shouts of “Allahu akbar” (God is great).
Although rebel commanders have asked foreign governments for anti-aircraft missiles, Western nations are unwilling to supply such weapons for fear of them falling into hostile hands. There was no indication fighters in Damascus had used any missiles.
Later footage showed a fighter jet swooping on a built-up area. An explosion is heard and a voice says: “It is firing rockets.” Activists said it had struck targets on the eastern outskirts of the capital.
“This is the first time a warplane strikes the edges of Damascus,” a Damascus-based activist told Reuters by Skype. “This plane was swooping over the area all afternoon.”
Activists said that at least two fighter planes had caused the casualties in the eastern suburbs.
“The 60 casualties were recorded in Zemalka and there were many dead as well in Saqba but their numbers could not be ascertained,” said Osama al-Dimashqi, an activist speaking from Zemalka and giving an alias for fear of reprisals.
“Most of those killed were civilians and the Free Syrian Army had attacked the roadblocks then left,” he said.
Activists said 11 of Monday’s dead were killed in the district of Jobar, where the helicopter came down. Five of the Jobar victims had been captured and summarily executed by security forces, and the others died when their homes were hit.
Army helicopters had been rocketing and strafing crowded working class suburbs on the eastern outskirts of the city since Sunday. “The sound of gunfire and mortar shells exploding hasn’t stopped,” an opposition activist, Samir al-Shami, said from the area. “I see smoke rising everywhere.”
Video from campaigners showed 20 bodies on the floor of a mosque, including three children.
On Sunday, opposition activists said they had found about 320 bodies, including some of women and children, in Daraya, just southwest of Damascus. Most had been killed execution-style, they said. Videos on the Internet showed rows of bodies wrapped in sheets. Most seemed to be young men, but at least one video showed several children who appeared to have been shot in the head. The body of one toddler was soaked in blood.
At the United Nations, Ban demanded an investigation.
“The secretary-general is certainly shocked by those reports and he strongly condemns this appalling and brutal crime,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky said. “This needs to be investigated immediately, in an independent and impartial fashion.”
The uprising, which began as peaceful protests, has become a civil war. U.N. investigators have accused both sides of war crimes but laid more blame on government troops and pro-government militia than on the rebels.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande warned Assad that any use of chemical weapons would be a legitimate justification for military intervention. The United States and Britain have made similar warnings.
“With our partners we remain very vigilant regarding preventing the use of chemical weapons, which for the international community would be a legitimate reason for direct intervention,” Hollande said in a speech.
Clashes are raging across Syria as the rebellion grows increasingly bloody, particularly in Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city and its economic hub, where the army and rebels appear stuck in a war of attrition.
Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Andrew Heavens