Russia sends warships to Syria: Putin prepares to evacuate his citizens as rebels close in on DamascusWarships sent to evacuate Russian citizens as rebels take hold of zone 2miles from Damascus
Palestinian camp Yarmouk has been an opposition stronghold since the Syrian civil war broke outOpposition has scored military successes in recent weeks as they fight to overthrow Assad
Today, clashes between Syrian rebels and
a group loyal to President Assad raged inside a
Damascus refugee camp
18:52 GMT, 18 December 2012
Russia has sent warships to Syria today to potentially evacuate its citizens from Syria, as rebel advances are threatening to take the capital Damascaus.
Moscow acted a day after insurgents waging a 21-month-old uprising obtained a possible springboard for a thrust into Damascus by seizing the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, an urban zone just 2 miles (3 km) from the heart of the city, activists said.
The Syrian opposition has scored significant military and diplomatic gains in recent weeks, capturing several army installations across Syria and securing formal recognition from Western and Arab states for its new coalition.
Residents and Free Syrian Army fighters from Al-Farooq battalion are seen near tanks after the fighters said they fought and defeated government troops in Halfaya, near Hama
More than 1,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria have crossed into Lebanon in the past 24 hours, a source at the Lebanese border said on Tuesday, after Syrian rebels took control of a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus
Vehicles carrying Palestinians and Syrians queue at the Lebanese-Syrian border, in al-Masnaa
Despite those rebel successes,
bloodshed has been rising with more than 40,000 killed in a movement
that began as peaceful street protests but has transformed into civil
Assad's pivotal allies have largely
stood behind him and Iran, believed to be his main bankroller in the
conflict, said there were no signs of Assad was on the verge of being
BUt now the move has been seen as a
sign President Bashar al-Assad's key ally is worried about rebel
advances now threatening even the capital.
'The Syrian army and the state machine
are working smoothly,' Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian
said in Moscow today.
But Russia, Assad's primary arms
supplier, has appeared to waver with contradictory statements over the
past week stressing opposition to Assad stepping down and airing
concerns about a possible rebel victory.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted
unnamed naval sources on Tuesday as saying that two armed landing craft,
a tanker and an escort vessel had left a Baltic port for the
Mediterranean Sea. Russia has a naval maintenance base in the Syrian
port of Tartus, around 250 km (155 miles) northwest of Damascus.
Residents and Free Syrian Army fighters from Al-Farooq battalion are seen at a checkpoint after the fighters said they fought and defeated government troops in Halfaya, near Hama
A Syrian family fleeing the violence in their country, sits inside their car next to a bus carrying Palestinians, who had been living at Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, as they wait to enter Lebanon
Members of the Free Syrian Army stand near damaged buildings in Daraya, near Damascus
'They are heading to the Syrian coast
to assist in a possible evacuation of Russian citizens … Preparations
for the deployment were carried out in a hurry and were heavily
classified,” the Russian agency quoted the source as saying.
Assad and his minority Alawite sect
retain a solid grip on most of the coastal provinces of Tartus and
Latakia, where their numbers are high.
But the mostly Sunni Muslim
rebels now control wide swathes of rural Syria, have seized border zones
near Turkey in the north and Iraq to the east, and are pushing hard to
advance on Damascus, Assad's fulcrum of power that sits close to the
western frontier with Lebanon.
It was not possible to independently
verify the Interfax report, which came a day after Russia confirmed that
two citizens working in the Latakia province were kidnapped along with
an Italian citizen.
About 5,3000 Russian citizens are registered with
consular authorities in Syria.
In Damascus, activists reported overnight explosions and early morning sniper fire around the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. The Yarmouk and Palestine refugee 'camps' are actually densely populated urban districts home to thousands of impoverished Palestinian refugees and Syrians.
Standing up to the state: Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan, near Idlib, Syria
The training is part of an attempt to transform the rag-tag rebel groups into a disciplined fighting force
Idlib has been an opposition stronghold since the Syrian civil war broken out against Assad's government nearly two years ago
'The rebels control the camp but army
forces are gathering in the Palestine camp and snipers can fire in on
the southern parts of Yarmouk,' rebel spokesman Abu Nidal said by Skype.
'Strategically, this site is very important because it is one of the best doors into central Damascus.
regime normally does not fight to regain areas captured any more
because its forces have been drained. But I think they could see Yarmouk
as a red line and fight back fiercely.'
Syria hosts half a million Palestinian refugees, most living in Yarmouk, descendants of those admitted after the creation of Israel in 1948. Damascus has always cast itself as a champion of the Palestinian struggle, sponsoring several guerrilla factions.
The battle in Yarmouk was one of a series of conflicts on the southern edges of Damascus, as the rebels try to seal off the capital in their campaign to end 42 years of rule over the major Arab state by the Assad family.
Both Assad's government and the rebels have enlisted and armed divided Palestinian factions.
Streams of refugees have fled Yarmouk. Many have headed to central Damascus while hundreds more have crossed into Lebanon.
The rebel fighters practise storming through doors of a building as the hone their combat skills
Syrian rebels listen to their trainer while teaching them how to use the RBG during a training session in Maaret Ikhwan, near Idlib
The training is part of an attempt to transform the rag-tag rebel groups into a disciplined fighting force
We walked out on foot without our
belongings until we reached central Damascus. We got in a taxi and drove
straight for the border,' said 75-year-old Abu Ali, speaking at the
Lebanon's Masnaa border crossing.
Abu Ali said around 70 percent of Yarmouk residents had fled and many had slept rough on the streets of Damascus.
The NBC network meanwhile announced
that its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel and his production
team were released unharmed after being held captive for five days
inside Syria by an 'unknown group.'
the revolt against Assad's rule began in March 2011, the
half-million-strong Palestinian community in Syria tried to stay on the
sidelines of the conflict.
as the civil war deepened, most Palestinians backed the rebels, though
some groups – such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine-General Command – have been fighting on the government side.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory
for Human Rights meanwhile said the violence in Yarmouk is forcing an
exodus of Palestinian refugees and Syrians who came to the camp in past
weeks to escape violence elsewhere in the city. The Observatory relies
on reports from activists on the ground.
War-torn: Last week footage emerged of a recent MiG air strike by the Syrian Army as it continued to pound the town where rebel fighters are training
Listening intently: Syrian rebels are lectured on how to use the RBG
Camp residents said several mortar
rounds landed inside Yarmouk and gunfire has echoed around the area. /12/18/article-2249979-168FECAD000005DC-290_634x423.jpg” width=”634″ height=”423″ alt=”A break for prayer during the training sessions in the rebel stronghold” class=”blkBorder” />
A break for prayer during the training sessions in the rebel stronghold
Taking aim: The rebels look out over Idlib, Syria, as part of the training role-play
There are also 'waves of significant
displacement' as about 150,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk and
thousands of Syrian residents of the camp 'scramble to seek safety amid
continued fighting,' the agency said.
UNRWA is housing over 2,600 displaced
persons in its facilities and Damascus area schools, and the number is
growing rapidly, the agency said in a statement that was posted on its
website late Monday.
Tuesday, an UNRWA official told The Associated Press that the situation
in Yarmouk is 'chaotic' and movement of the agency's staff inside the
camp has been restricted.
continue to leave the camp, with some heading to UNRWA installations
around Damascus. Others are fleeing to other Syrian cities and many are
headed to the Lebanon-Syrian border, said Sami Mshasha, spokesman for
There were no immediate reports of
casualties from today's fighting. At least eight people were killed in
an airstrike on Yarmouk on Sunday, according to Syrian activists.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said Monday the United States is 'deeply concerned' by reports that dozens of civilians were killed or wounded in Yarmouk as a result of aerial bombardment and fighting.
The U.N. humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, who was just in Damascus meanwhile warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Syria.
The battle to bring down the Assad regime has already forced some three million Syrians from their homes, according to a new estimate, and cold, wet winter weather is making life increasingly unbearable for the displaced.
Among those who left their homes are more than 500,000 who fled to neighboring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
Amos told reporters Monday after briefing the U.N. Security Council on her trip that she asked the Syrian government to allow the U.N. to import fuel so the organisation can move around Syria, and to allow 10 additional international humanitarian groups to work in the country to scale-up the U.N.'s work.
NBC meanwhile said that Engel and members of his production crew have been freed unharmed following a firefight at a checkpoint after five days of captivity inside Syria.
NBC News said on its website that 39-year-old Engel and his team were kidnapped shortly after crossing the border from Turkey into Syria on Thursday. They were blindfolded and bound, but otherwise not physically harmed. The group was transported in the back of a truck to a location believed to be near the small town of Maarrat Misrin in northern Idlib province.
On Monday, the group was being driven to a new location when the kidnappers ran into a checkpoint manned by members of the Ahrar al-Sham brigade, a Syrian rebel group. A firefight ensued, killing two of the captors, the report said.
'We are pleased to report they are safely out of the country,' NBC said in a statement.