Syrian Forces Break Rebels’ Long Siege Of Prison In Aleppo

Syrian Forces Break Rebels’ Long Siege Of Prison In Aleppo

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces have broken a long siege on the strategically situated prison in the northern city of Aleppo, government and pro-opposition groups said Thursday.

The advance of tanks and troops into the sprawling prison complex on the northeastern edge of Aleppo is the latest victory for government forces ahead of the presidential election scheduled for June 3.

The government is keen to project an image of mounting battlefield victories in the run-up to the election, which is widely expected to result in another seven-year term for President Bashar Assad.

Forces loyal to Assad have fought off a 3-year-old uprising and have taken the offensive on several fronts in Syria, inflicting strategic defeats on rebels backed by the United States and its allies.

Earlier this month, the Syrian military recaptured the Old City of Homs, a longtime opposition bastion in the center of the nation. Beleaguered rebels agreed to evacuate the area in a deal between the two sides.

In Aleppo, analysts say, Syrian forces may be trying to re-create the Homs scenario by pushing rebels back, cutting off their supply lines and forcing a surrender or retreat.

But the military, overstretched as it fights on numerous fronts, may face a long battle before its troops can encircle rebel-held strongholds in Aleppo. Rebels control much of the city’s east and several suburbs and routes leading in and out of the city.

The army has made some territorial gains in the area but has faced fierce resistance from various rebel brigades, including forces of Al Nusra Front, the al-Qaida franchise in Syria.

“The fall of the prison does not lead to a siege on Aleppo,” an opposition activist in the city who goes by the nickname Abu Yazeed Al-Halabi said via Skype. “But the regime is working on completing the perimeter around Aleppo and besieging it as it did in Homs.”

Another pro-opposition activist declared, “Aleppo is not a city that can be besieged.”

A major complication is the fact that Aleppo is near the Turkish border, a logistics hub for the rebels. Opposition forces control key border crossings, with fighters and supplies regularly crossing into Syria, and Turkey has strongly backed their cause.

Still, the government advance in Aleppo is clearly a strategic and symbolic triumph for Assad and the latest in a series of setbacks for rebel forces.

Both the state-run news media and a pro-opposition monitoring group reported Thursday that the military had been able to enter the prison grounds, which had been under rebel siege for 13 months.

The government had reportedly been forced to airlift supplies into the facility as its forces fought off rebel thrusts, led on several occasions by bomb-laden vehicles driven by suicide bombers.

As many as 4,000 prisoners were said to be in the prison. There have been unconfirmed reports that some of them were killed during the periodic battles and that others have died of hunger-related ailments.

On Thursday, photos posted on Twitter purported to show haggard prisoners behind bars welcoming army troops.

In a statement, the army called the advance “highly important” as “it serves to tighten the noose on residual terrorist groups in the eastern and northeastern outskirts of Aleppo city and cuts off supply lines that terrorist gangs were using.”

Syrian officials routinely refer to the rebels as “terrorists.”

Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub and its most populous city, has been divided between government and rebel forces for almost two years. Large swaths of the city have been destroyed and much of the population has fled amid clashes and heavy government bombardment.

AFP Photo/Karam al-Masri

Dutch Priest Who Lived In Syria For Decades Is Slain At Home

Dutch Priest Who Lived In Syria For Decades Is Slain At Home

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — A Dutch priest who lived in Syria for almost five decades and refused to evacuate this year from the rebel-held Old City area of Homs was shot and killed at his residence early Monday, according to official accounts.

Father Frans Van der Lugt was eulogized by the Vatican as a “man of peace” who stayed behind in the ravaged Old City to assist a dwindling population of Christians and Muslims suffering the devastating effects of an almost two-year siege. Like Pope Francis, he was a Jesuit.

“This is the death of a man of peace, who showed great courage in remaining loyal to the Syrian people despite an extremely risky and difficult situation,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi told reporters.

His death prompted an outpouring of grief on Twitter and other social media forums. Pictures of the priest’s body, in white clerical garb and placed in a coffin, were also circulated on the Web.

The motive for killing Van der Lugt, who was in his 70s, was not clear.

The Syrian state media blamed “armed terrorist groups” — the government’s description for armed rebels.

Various opposition groups denied involvement and alleged that the government killed the priest in a bid to inflame sectarian tensions and justify military bombardment of civilian districts. A statement from the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front condemned the killing as a “heinous act.”

According to the official media, “terrorists” opened fire on the priest at dawn at the Jesuit residence in the Bustan al-Diwan district in the Old City of Homs. The area is under the control of Islamist rebels.

Other accounts indicated that one or two gunmen arrived at the priest’s door, forced him outside and shot him in the head.

In February, the bespectacled Jesuit declined to leave the Old City as the United Nations arranged for the evacuation of more than 1,400 people, including a remnant population of fewer than 100 Christians. The quarter was once home to thousands of Christians and many churches. Most of the churches, like area mosques, have suffered heavy damage, clerics said.

The priest said it was his duty to remain with his “flock.”

Van der Lugt, reportedly a trained psychotherapist, occasionally spoke to journalists and helped publicize the plight of people living under siege in Homs, suffering from a lack of food, medical attention and other basic services.

The Syrian military had cut off the area for almost two years, trapping rebels and several thousand civilians inside the warren of streets and alleys in the sprawling Old City, now largely reduced to rubble by shelling and gun battles. Snipers from both sides prevent entry and exit from the area.

“I do not accept that we drown in a sea of hunger, letting the waves of death drag us under,” the priest said this year in a widely circulated video clip. “We love life. We want to live. And we do not want to sink in a sea of pain and suffering.”

His killing could spark new concerns for the fate of Syria’s Christian minority, who accounted for about 10 percent of the population before the armed conflict erupted three years ago. Many Christians express fears for their community’s existence should Islamist-led rebels manage to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad.

AFP Photo/Ahmad Aboud

Lebanon Roads Reopen After Tense Protests, Clashes Over Syria

Lebanon Roads Reopen After Tense Protests, Clashes Over Syria

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Authorities said roads across Lebanon were reopened Wednesday following a tense evening of road-closing protests linked to the war in neighboring Syria.

Clashes erupted late Tuesday between demonstrators and security forces as protesters used burning tires to block a number of roads throughout the country. The Army fired warning shots and used tear gas to disperse protesters and several injuries were reported, according local media accounts.

Fallout from the Syrian war has resulted in a wave of sectarian-fueled car bombings, gun battles and rocket and mortar strikes in Lebanon, causing profound instability.

The mostly Sunni Muslim demonstrators shutting down roads on Tuesday were themselves protesting a blockade of the largely Sunni town of Arsal, close to the Syrian border in the northeast Bekka Valley. Residents in the nearby, predominantly Shiite town of Labweh put up sand barriers to block access to and from neighboring Arsal after a number of rockets allegedly fired from there fell on Labweh.

Lebanon’s major Muslim sects have generally taken opposing sides in the three-year-old Syrian war. A disparate rebel force composed of mostly Sunnis is fighting to oust the government of Syrian President Assad, who is supported by Shiite Iran and by Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political and paramilitary organization.

Tensions erupted in the border zone on Sunday after Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah militiamen overran the long-time Syrian rebel bastion of Yabroud, situated close to the Lebanese border. An Al Qaeda-linked Sunni faction later claimed responsibility for a car bomb that exploded Sunday evening in a mostly Shiite town in the Bekka Valley, killing two Hezbollah members.

Lebanon’s Arsal has become a rear-guard hub for Syrian rebels fighting in the Yabroud area and elsewhere in Syria. Rebels travel back and forth across the porous border and wounded fighters receive treatment at clinics in Arsal, which also hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni.

But the only road to Arsal on the Lebanese side passes through Labweh, where Hezbollah enjoys strong support. Residents of Labweh and other mostly Shiite areas say Arsal has become a safe haven for militants conducting rocket and car-bomb attacks on Shiite districts.

The official Lebanese news service reported Wednesday that the road to Arsal had been reopened, along with other arteries nationwide, and that the Army and other security forces had been deployed in the border area with Syria. Officials appealed for calm and the government was holding high-level talks in a bid to defuse tensions and bolster security in the border zone.

AFP Photo/Galiya Gubaeva

Syrians Tune Up For Elections; Assad Deemed likely To Run

Syrians Tune Up For Elections; Assad Deemed likely To Run

By Patrick J. McDonnell and Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT — Syrian lawmakers Thursday approved revisions to the nation’s electoral law amid mounting indications that President Bashar Assad plans to run for a new, seven-year term.

Assad, whose current mandate ends in July, has frequently hinted that he would seek re-election under the terms of a new constitution approved in 2012. The Syrian parliament has been modifying the nation’s election law in accordance with the new constitution, though no date has yet been set for elections.

Representatives of the opposition that seeks to oust Assad from office have said repeatedly that any election held while the war in Syria was still raging would be a sham — especially if Assad was on the ballot.

The new constitution allows for multiple candidates and political parties. But critics say the ongoing conflict and Assad’s tight hold on the security services and government agencies would ensure his re-election.

In New York, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations and Arab League envoy for Syria, voiced fears Thursday that the planned elections would likely jeopardize the so-called Geneva peace process.

“If there is an election, then my suspicion is that the opposition … will probably not be interested in talking to the government,” Brahimi, chief mediator in the Geneva talks, told reporters in New York.

Two rounds of negotiations this year between Syrian government officials and a U.S.-backed, exile opposition bloc have failed to achieve much, the U.N. mediator acknowledged. But Brahimi said he was still hopeful that a third round could be “more productive.” No date has been set for a resumption of talks.

A major goal of the Geneva negotiations is to name a transitional government that would lead Syria until a new, democratic government could be elected. The opposition argues that Assad cannot be part of any transitional administration, a position rejected by Syrian negotiators.

While Assad has not formally committed to running for re-election, various Syrian government officials have indicated that he will likely seek a third term.

“President Assad is the real guarantee for the security and stability of Syria,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said Thursday in an interview with China’s Xinhua news agency.

Assad was first elected in 2000 in unopposed balloting after the death of his father, ex-President Hafez Assad. He was re-elected in 2007, receiving more than 97 percent of the vote, according to official tallies.

This week marks the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011 with street protests that triggered a government crackdown. The war has left more than 100,000 dead, reduced many neighborhoods and towns to rubble, and resulted in more than 2 million refugees fleeing Syria.

AFP Photo