The Latest: Opposition accuses Syria of war crimes

Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP
In this photo released on Tuesday Feb. 20, 2018 which provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows members of the Syrian Civil Defense run to help survivors from a street that attacked by airstrikes and shelling of the Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, suburb of Damascus, Syria. A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics say government shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, killed at least 98 people on Monday. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — The Latest on the conflict in Syria (all times local):

5:25 p.m.

A top Syrian opposition official has accused the government of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus calling on the international community to react.

Nasr al-Hariri, who heads the committee that represents the Syrian opposition in U.N. talks with the government in Geneva, told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday that the opposition is committed to a political solution but “we are studying all the options.” He was asked whether they will withdraw from the talks

Al-Hariri said the government bombardment of Damascus’ eastern suburbs, also known as eastern Ghouta, are a “flagrant defiance of international law.” He added that the U.N. Security Council should take “decisive decisions.”

Earlier on Tuesday, al-Hariri told the Pan Arab Al-Arabiya TV that the opposition is ready for negotiation for the withdrawal of al-Qaida-linked fighters from Ghouta if this would end the violence.

Al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee has presence in eastern Ghouta although it is not the most powerful group in the area.


5:10 p.m.

A spokesman for the main Syrian Kurdish militia says government forces have started entering the northern enclave of Afrin to deploy along the border with Turkey and help defend it against advancing Turkish troops.

Tuesday’s comments by Nouri Mahmoud, spokesman for the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, came nearly an hour after pro-government Syrian fighters began entering the Afrin region from the nearby government-held village of Nubul.

Shortly after the fighters entered, Turkish troops started shelling the area forcing journalists to flee according to Syrian state TV.

He said the YPG had invited the government to enter the region to participate in defending Afrin and the border against Turkey’s “unjust invasion.”

Mahmoud added in a statement that the Syrian government sent some fighters starting Tuesday.

5 p.m.

The U.N. envoy for Syria is decrying a recent upsurge in violence, expressing concerns that the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus could fall victim to widespread bloodshed like that in northern Aleppo more than a year ago.

Staffan de Mistura says world powers are not doing enough to halt the fighting over the rebel-held enclave east of the capital that is besieged by government forces.

He faulted President Bashar Assad’s government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, for “obviously unleashing a lot of fire” recently.

De Mistura told reporters in his office in Geneva that “we are looking in front of us at an increasing tragedy” and decried “increasing incremental militarization of the conflict in eastern Ghouta.”

“Bottom line: if we have learned something from Aleppo, (it’s) time to actually avoid all this.”

He pointed to “a lot of shelling on Damascus as well” recently, before adding, in remarks directed at the government and its allies: “The only difference is that one group has got better weapons. That’s the only difference.”


4:55 p.m.

Syrian state TV is reporting that Turkish troops are shelling the entrance of the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin shortly after scores of pro-government fighters entered the area.

The TV showed shells falling in an area where journalists gathered Tuesday forcing some of them to flee the area.

Minutes before the shelling, about 20 vehicles with heavy machine guns mounted on them were seen entering the area as part of an agreement between the government and the main Kurdish militia in Syria known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

Turkey has threatened Syrian troops not to help YPG fighters, warning that it will fight its backers.

Ankara considers the YPG a “terrorist group” linked to the Kurdish insurgency within Turkey’s borders. On Jan. 20, it launched a major air and ground offensive, pounding the enclave with airstrikes and artillery on a daily basis.


4:30 p.m.

Pro-government Syrian fighters have started entering the northern Kurdish enclave of Afrin where Turkish troops have been on the offensive for a month.

Syrian state TV showed about 20 vehicles with heavy machine guns mounted on them entering Afrin from the nearby village of Nubul.

Scores of gunmen were on the vehicles waving Syrian flags and chanting pro-government slogans.

There was no immediate comment about the deployment from Kurdish officials.

Tuesday’s deployment came a day after Turkey warned the Syrian government against entering the Kurdish-controlled enclave where a major Turkish military offensive is underway, saying it would hit back at the troops if their goal is to protect the Kurdish fighters.

The deployment came hours after Turkish media reported that Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have linked a swathe of land in the Afrin enclave to the Turkish-held Syrian city of Azaz.


3:45 p.m.

Turkish media reports say Turkish troops and allied Syrian opposition forces have linked a swathe of land in the Afrin enclave to the Turkish-held Syrian city of Azaz.

The private Dogan news agency said the advancing forces, which are battling a Syrian Kurdish militia, took control of a key road linking the two areas in northern Syria, along the border. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the conflict, confirmed the report.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency said nine villages were captured on Tuesday, including four in the north of Afrin.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier that the Turkish forces would soon besiege Afrin’s city center.

Turkey launched its offensive into Afrin on Jan. 20 to clear it of Syrian Kurdish fighters. It views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting inside Turkey.


3:15 p.m.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry says several dozen fighters hailing from Russia and former Soviet republics have been injured in Syria and flown to Russia for treatment.

The ministry’s statement does not say where in Syria the fighters were injured but that it happened in “recent fighting.” It comes amid mounting indications that Russian private contractors in Syria were part of pro-government forces that suffered heavy losses in a U.S. counterattack in the Deir el-Zour province on Feb. 7.

The Associated Press last week interviewed the mother of one of the killed mercenaries as well as families of the active Russian contractors.

Following its acknowledgement last week that five Russians had been killed by the U.S. strike in Syria, the Russian Foreign Ministry insisted Tuesday that the men were not on military duty and that the Russian military did not provide them any assistance.


2 p.m.

A top Syrian opposition figure says government forces along with Iran and Russia are committing a new “Holocaust” in rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus.

Mohammed Alloush of the Army of Islam told The Associated Press Tuesday that the United Nations is also to blame “because of its bankruptcy and lies about protecting security and peace in the world.”

Alloush’s comments came after opposition activists and paramedics said that more than 100 people have been killed since Monday in the worst daily death toll in the eastern suburbs, also known as eastern Ghouta, in three years.

Alloush, whose militant group is the strongest in eastern Ghouta, described the government and its backers Russia and Iran as a “Satanic alliance” that is “unprecedented since World War II.”

Alloush added that “a new Holocaust is being committed by the dirtiest regime on earth.”


12:40 p.m.

Turkey’s president says Turkish troops involved in an offensive to drive out Syrian Kurdish militiamen from a Syrian enclave will soon begin a siege of the city of Afrin.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his ruling party’s legislators on Tuesday that the month-long offensive into the northwester enclave of Afrin has so far been progressing slowly.
He says Turkey is not there “to burn and destroy” the enclave but to ensure it becomes a “safe and livable place.”

Erdogan said that, however, “in the coming days, the siege of Afrin city center will commence at a more rapid pace.”

Turkey launched its offensive to clear Afrin of the Syrian Kurdish militia it considers a “terrorist” organization and an extension to its own outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting within Turkey.

Turkish troops have so far seized border regions encircling Afrin, including strategic hills.


11:55 a.m.

The U.N. children’s agency has issued a statement of protest against the killing of scores of people, including children, in the Syrian government bombardment of rebel-held suburbs of Damascus.

UNICEF’s one-page statement released on Tuesday carries a headline, saying: “Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?”

The headline is followed by blank space underneath.

UNICEF said it issued this blank statement because “we no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.”

Syrian opposition activists and paramedics said airstrikes and shelling of Damascus’ eastern suburbs known as eastern Ghouta killed at least 98 people, including 20 children, on Monday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the daily death toll is the highest in the area since 2015.


11:15 a.m.

Residents of the Syrian capital and the state-run news agency say shells from besieged rebel-held suburbs are raining down on Damascus.

SANA says Tuesday’s shelling killed one person and wounded at least six people. It comes amid a major government offensive on the region known as eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian Civil Defense affiliated with the opposition said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 on Monday, adding that some people were still under the rubble.

A resident of Damascus hiding in the corridor of an office building described the shelling as one of the worst in months. The resident spoke on condition of anonymity for security concerns.

The shelling targeted the districts of Old Damascus, Bab Touma, Abu Rummaneh and others.

—Zeina Karam in Beirut;


10:30 a.m.

A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics say government shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, killed at least 98 people on Monday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it was the deadliest day in three years in the area known as eastern Ghouta.

The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 and that some people are still under the rubble.

The Observatory says 20 children and 15 women were among those killed on Monday.

The targeted suburbs have been subjected to weeks-long bombardment that has killed and wounded hundreds of people.

Opposition activists say government forces have brought in reinforcements in preparation for a wider offensive on the area — the last main rebel stronghold near Damascus.

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