New airstrikes hit Damascus suburb day after 45 killed

Zeina Karam
Associated Press

Beirut — Syrian government helicopter gunships on Monday struck a suburb of the capital, Damascus, a day after airstrikes in the area killed at least 45 people, activists said as a visiting U.N. official said the humanitarian situation in the war-ravaged country is “a blot on our collective conscience.”

Sunday’s barrage — in which government airstrikes and bombardment of several opposition-held eastern Damascus suburbs killed at least 45 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights — was particularly heavy. It followed volleys of mortar shells fired into Damascus by rebels in the area that had killed three people, including a child, just hours earlier.

On Monday, the U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said he was “deeply saddened” by the uptick in violence Sunday. He spoke to reporters in Damascus at the end of a three-day visit during which he travelled to the central Syrian city of Homs and met with officials in the capital.

“This is a tragic reminder of the urgency of finding a political solution and security a nationwide ceasefire,” he said. “Such indiscriminate attacks are unacceptable and we must do our utmost to protect innocent civilians.”

There was no immediate word on casualties from Monday’s attacks, which targeted the southwestern suburb of Daraya.

In Sunday’s government attacks, 49 people were killed in the Douma, Saqba and Arbeen suburbs, according to another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees. Syria’s state-run news agency and residents said that in rebel attacks

Fighting on the ground in Syria has intensified even as the international community makes its most serious push yet to restart peace talks between government officials and opposition representatives.

Around 6.5 million Syrian are internally displaced, O’Brien said. Two million children are out of school, and 72 percent of the population has no access to drinking water, he added.

“This situation is unacceptable. A blot on our collective conscience,” he said.

Also Monday, the head of Russia’s military general staff said rebels of the Free Syrian Army are receiving weapons from Moscow — comments that come just days after a Kremlin spokesman denied that Russia was doing that.

Gen. Valery Gerasimov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that Russia is supporting the FSA with airstrikes and is also helping “with weapons, ammunition and material.” The statement appeared to suggest Russia was supplying the weapons, but the military could not be reached for clarification.

Last week, President Vladimir Putin said the rebels, who oppose Moscow’s ally Syrian President Bashar Assad, were receiving weapons from Russia, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later said Putin meant Assad’s army was getting weapons and the rebels were receiving only air support.

FSA’s chief of staff has denied receiving Russian weapons.