Middle East

Syrian air force steps up attacks in south

Free Syrian Army fighters prepare to raid a house in Daraa May 16, 2013. Picture taken May 16, 2013. REUTERS/Thaer Abdallah

BEIRUT: The Syrian army intensified its aerial bombardment Friday of southern Syria as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a wide offensive in a province bordering Jordan, activists said.

The Local Coordination Committees opposition network and an anti-government activist in the area said air raids and government shelling in the southern province of Daraa killed at least two people Friday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist group, reported that airstrikes on several areas in Daraa killed a man and a child. It said warplanes and helicopter gunships attacked the towns of Enkhil and Ghabagheb, as well as the village of Naima and the capital of Daraa province that carries the same name.

Daraa is where Syria's uprising started nearly three years ago with anti-government protests that later spread throughout the country. It turned into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 people, according to opposition activists.

The army in recent days also has stepped up its use of barrel bombs in deadly airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Daraa. The crude bombs - barrels filled with explosives, fuel and scraps of metal - had so far been used mostly against rebel held areas in the northern city of Aleppo and near Damascus, Syria's capital.

An amateur video released by activists showed smoke billowing from Naima after being struck by barrel bombs. Another video showed men running through dust created by a strike in the city of Daraa before reaching a two-story house bombed into a pile of rubble. A man could be heard shouting in the background: "My father!"

The videos appeared genuine and corresponded with Associated Press reporting of the attacks.

Several activists said the attacks come as opposition fighters were preparing to launch a push from the area toward Damascus in coming days. The rebels tried several times over the past two years to reach the capital but were crushed by Syrian troops.

The activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were speaking of military plans, claimed thousands of U.S.-trained rebels are getting ready to attack government positions throughout Daraa province.

Syria's Al-Thawra newspaper, a mouthpiece of President Bashar Assad's government, harshly criticized Jordan on Thursday, accusing it of taking part in a U.S.-backed conspiracy against Damascus.

There is an "official Jordanian role in coordination with intelligence services from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, with some Gulf Arab mix," the paper said. It added that Jordan is taking part in an "American escalation" after the second round of peace talks between rival Syrian groups in Geneva ended without any progress.

The CIA has led U.S. outreach to the rebels outside Syria, meeting them at refugee camps and towns along the Turkish and Jordanian borders. CIA paramilitary officers, as well as special operations trainers, have trained select groups of rebels in Jordan on the use of encrypted communications equipment - the nonlethal aid provided by President Barack Obama's administration - and they have helped the rebels learn how to fire anti-aircraft weapons and small arms provided by Gulf states.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees also reported heavy clashes Friday in the southern region of Quneitra. The Syrian army has been reinforcing its positions in Quneitra as part of an effort to dislodge rebels from the area that is near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In Geneva, meanwhile, the United Nations' refugee agency called on countries to make commitments to provide resettlement for an additional 100,000 Syrian refugees in 2015 and 2016.

UNHCR earlier called on states to accommodate 30,000 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees through resettlement and other forms of admission by the end of this year.

In a statement Friday, the agency said 20 countries have offered more than 18,800 places. It added that UNHCR remains confident that the 30,000 goal will be met by the end of the year through a "significant number of submissions to the United States."

There are currently nearly 2.5 million Syrian refugees registered with the agency around the Middle East, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Tens of thousands more have found shelter without registering with the agency.





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