DAMASCUS: Syrian army defectors attacked a military intelligence base on Wednesday in one of the most daring raids in eight months of unrest as Arab ministers gathered in Rabat to ramp up the pressure on the regime.
Arab foreign ministers, who were also to hold talks with their Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu, were due to discuss the implementation of a raft of sanctions adopted against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime on
Saturday, including its suspension from the Arab League.
The early morning raid on the air force intelligence base just outside Damascus was among the most spectacular carried out by the growing number of deserters from Assad’s largely conscript armed forces who have refused orders to open fire on civilian protesters.
The unprecedented movement against Assad’s 11-year rule has been spearheaded by peaceful demonstrators but in recent months the deserters have organised themselves into a Free Syrian Army which has inflicted growing losses on the regular armed forces.
"The Free Army struck with rockets and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) the headquarters of air force intelligence which is located at the entrance of Damascus," the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said in a statement, adding that smoke was rising from the area.
Activists, who illustrated the three-pronged attack in a plan attached to their statement, said prisoners being detained at the intelligence branch "were well" but the operation failed to secure their release.
There was no immediate word on any casualties in the attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the raid in an email received by AFP in Nicosia.
"Explosions shook Zamalkeh, Hamuriya, Douma, Harasta and we have confirmed reports that the headquarters of the security services in Harasta was hit," the Britain-based watchdog said.
In Hama, a flashpoint central province, security forces shot dead four people — three army defectors and one civilian — in the rural town of Keferzita, the Observatory said.
And in the southern province of Daraa, cradle of the eight-month revolt against Assad’s regime, security forces killed a civilian at a checkpoint in the town of Hara, it added.
The violence came as Arab foreign ministers gathered in the Moroccan capital to ramp up the pressure on the Damascus authorities to honour the terms of an Arab League peace deal they signed up to on November 2.
Foreign ministers already agreed at a previous meeting in Cairo on Saturday to withdraw ambassadors from Damascus, impose political and economic sanctions, and open talks with opposition groups on their vision for a post-Assad Syria.
The peace blueprint called for the protection of civilians, the withdrawal of troops from towns and villages where there have been clashes, the release of those detained during the protests and the launch of negotiations with the opposition.
But human rights groups say the Syrian regime has instead intensified
its crackdown, with more than 70 people dying on Monday alone in one of the bloodiest days of the unrest.
On Tuesday, Syria freed more than 1,000 prisoners in an apparent 11th-hour bid to placate Arab leaders ahead of the Rabat meeting at which it will not be represented.
UN leader Ban Ki-moon said it was "crucially important now that President Assad immediately stop killing his own people," and urged Arab states to exercise "leadership" in resolving the crisis quickly.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once a close political ally and a personal friend of Assad, said he had lost hope that the Syrian leader would back down from resorting to bloodshed in a desperate bid to save his regime.
"A future cannot be built on the blood of the innocent, otherwise history will remember those leaders as ones who feed on blood," said Erdogan. "And you Assad, you are now coming closer to opening that page of history."
Ankara hit Syria with energy sanctions, halting joint oil exploration and threatening to cut power supplies to its southern neighbour, which has been struggling with electricity shortfalls for the past two years.
The United States welcomed Ankara’s moves.
"We very much welcome the strong stand that Turkey has taken. It sends a critical message to President Assad that again he cannot crack down and repress the aspirations of his people," deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said.