Wednesday | March 29, 2017
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Car Bomb Rocks Syrian Town; Government Forces Pound Damascus

ANTAKYA, Turkey — Syrian forces bombarded rebel strongholds in part of the capital city of Damascus on Sunday and a car bomb exploded in the central Syrian city of Homs, as fierce fighting between government troops and rebels continued unabated.

The extraordinary assault on the outskirts of the nation’s capital was the most intense fighting in four months, as government troops tried to stall rebels from advancing further into the seat of power held by Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Reports from state-run media said at least 15 people were killed and more than 20 were injured, some critically, after a car bomb went off on al-Hamra Street in an upscale section of Homs filled with restaurants and cafes. Many Syrians fleeing fighting elsewhere in the city have settled in the area.

Video posted on the Internet showed flames and thick black smoking billowing up from the street in front of an apartment building as onlookers screamed and others rushed toward the blaze carrying red fire extinguishers.

In Damascus, Syrian forces fired rockets into suburban neighborhoods where rebels have advanced in the last week in an apparent effort to stop them from closing in on the city center that is the seat of government.

Activists said that fighting continued for a fourth day around the Damascus international airport, but the government announced that it was open and flights were operating on schedule. Egypt Air said it would resume flights Monday.

The day’s events suggested that the Syrian government is leaning more on its air force, as rebels have overrun some army bases and taken away heavy weaponry.

A group named the Aleppo Military Council announced that it was prepared to shoot down Syrian fighter jets. The group did not specify what it would use to shoot down the attacking planes, but said, “We are very ready to accomplish these attacks,” implying it had missiles capable of taking them down.

The commander of a Damascus-based militia consisting of about 15 men said they had assassinated an air force officer last week and were prepared to kill more in an effort to drain the regime’s air power.

“We waited for him in the street and shot him,” said the commander, who used the nom de guerre of Abu Omar al-Shami during an interview in Turkey, where he said he had come to raise money to buy silencers for their pistols.

There also was heavy fighting Sunday in the countryside around Idlib in northwestern Syria. Refugees who arrived in Turkey on Sunday said the Syrian army had intensified the shelling of numerous farming villages where residents have taken part in anti-government protests.

On the Turkish side of the border, around 11:30 a.m., the dull thud of explosions could be heard and felt reverberating every few minutes from the far side of a mountain across a large valley separating the two countries.

Salame Diab, a 28-year-old farmer, arrived midday in the border town of Hacipasa. He said at least half of his village of Ayn Assauda had been destroyed Saturday by almost-nonstop Syrian shelling. He took his wife and four children, and together with most of the villagers, left town on foot around 3 a.m. Sunday for a 10-mile trek to Turkey. Some villagers stayed behind, though, to care for their sheep and cattle, Diab said.

A Turkish humanitarian group called Support to Life was on hand to distribute food, blankets and clothing to the refugees, who are not counted as registered because they entered the country illegally. Program director Derya Mutlu said the new arrivals could sleep in an empty wedding hall owned by the village, where blankets and tables lined the walls beneath a worn roof riddled with holes.

Other refugees who were turned away at the Turkish border snuck into the country in a rowboat operating as a makeshift ferry across a river slicing through an olive grove outside of town.

“We got out before the traitorous Syrian army entered our village,” said a man who declined to give his name after he, his wife and seven children alighted from the tiny rowboat. He said most of the homes in his village of Selet Zahour were reduced to rubble by artillery about two weeks ago, and the rest were burned by government troops.

On Monday, NATO is expected to consider whether to provide Patriot missiles Turkey has requested to place along the Syrian border. Turkish officials fear that if the Syrian government is backed into a corner, it may deploy missiles with chemical warheads, and wants the Patriots to deflect them before they reach border communities.

Stray Syrian missiles occasionally have landed in Turkish territory. In the most recent example, several rockets fell in fields around Reyhanli on Saturday night.

On Sunday morning, farmers and small boys climbed a hilltop near a school and a mosque where one errant missile left a crater about four feet deep in a rocky field. Some of the boys picked up sharp pieces of metal that were all that remained of the rocket after police carried it away.

Several neighbors who lived as far as half-a-mile away described how their iron doors rattled and windows broke when the rocket landed around 8 p.m. Saturday.

“It’s like the house was shaken off its foundation,” said Leyla Parlar, who lives about 500 feet from where the rocket landed, as she displayed a small plastic bag filled with pieces of the weapon she picked up from her yard, roof, patio and living room carpet.

In all, at least 85 people died in fighting and violence in Syria on Sunday, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. That was down considerably from more than 200 counted as dead on Saturday by the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The 20 months of civil war have claimed more than 40,000 lives so far.

Syrian television showed gruesome photos of 21 Lebanese from Tripoli who were ambushed and killed as they snuck across the border two days earlier. The state-run television called them “terrorists” and showed their ID cards. InTripoli, their families held a protest march.