A Syrian boy rides a bicycle as smoke rises over the Syrian city of Aleppo after missiles fired from a fighter jet hit petrol tankers in the Bab al-Nayrab district Photo: REUTERS
By Adrian Blomfield, Middle East Correspondent and Damien McElroy in Gaziantepe, Turkey
9:23PM BST 27 Aug 2012
As government forces launched a devastating aerial and artillery assault on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Francois Hollande, the French president, declared on Monday night that he and his international partners were closer than ever before to a formal intervention in Syria.
“We are working … [on] the initiative of buffer zones proposed by Turkey,” Mr Hollande said. “We are doing so in co-ordination with our closest partners.”
Indicating the formation of a twin-pronged Western strategy, Mr Hollande also became the first international leader to urge the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, promising to grant it immediate recognition once it is formed.
With refugees pouring across Syria’s borders, and Turkey struggling to respond to rapidly increasing influx, the long-discussed issue of a buffer zone to protect civilians in northern Syria has acquired a new sense of urgency.
Thousands of refugees massed in makeshift accommodation on the Syrian side of the Turkish border yesterday as Anakar sealed its crossings, claiming its camps were full.
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With as many as 80,000 refugees spread across camps in southern Turkey, the numbers who have fled violence in Syria has almost doubled in a month.
Turkish requests for a buffer zone, which would provide a haven not just for civilians but also for Syrian rebels operating along both sides of the border, have been so far rebuffed by the United States.
It remains far from clear how a buffer zone would be policed, although it has always been assumed that Turkey and Arab States would take the lead and that there would be no deployment of Western forces.
Pressure for a more robust response from the international community has grown after the bloodiest month of the uprising so far claimed more than 4,000 lives, according to opposition groups.
With rebel fighters and government forces fighting each other to near stalemate in the northern city of Aleppo, President Bashar al-Assad has switched his attention to Damascus.
Last week, he launched his bloodiest offensive yet in the capital, with government forces launching an assault that killed hundreds of people in Daraya, on the southwestern outskirts of the city, according to opposition statistics.
Activists say many of the dead were killed in summary executions and survivors yesterday spoke of soldiers bayoneting dozens of people as they swept victoriously through the town.
Opposition fighters declared that they had partially avenged the “massacre” in Daraya after successfully shooting down a helicopter gunship over Damascus.
Video footage filmed by the rebels showed the helicopter catch fire after being struck before spinning out of control and plummeting to the ground in a ball of fire.
In recent weeks rebels have been hapless in the face of regime aerial attack, both by helicopter gunships and fighter-jets that have shown little distinction between civilian and insurgent targets.
Rebel hopes of capturing either Aleppo or Damascus may well depend on finding a systematic strategy of dealing with the aerial threat. That prospect appears a long way off, with opposition fighters admitting that they had brought down the helicopter more by luck than design.
“It was flying overhead the eastern part of the city and firing all morning,” an activist identifying himself as Abu Bakr told the Reuters news agency. “The rebels had been trying to hit [it] for about an hour; finally they did.”
The felling of the helicopter, while undoubtedly morale boosting, brought only fleeting respite for the rebels.
Ignoring the international condemnation triggered by the mass killings in Daraya, government forces have switched their focus from the west to the east of the city as part of a campaign to reassert total control over Mr Assad’s capital.
The full gamut of the regime’s arsenal was deployed, with fighter planes striking closer to the heart of Damascus than ever before as the army maintained a relentless barrage of shelling and helicopter attacks on a string of eastern suburbs.
At least 62 people were killed in the assault, opposition activists said, with shells striking a row of flats in Jobar, the district where the helicopter had been shot down earlier in the day.
As in Daraya, there were reports of summary executions as government forces advanced. Footage released by opposition campaigners showed 20 corpses on the floor of a mosque in the neighbouring district of Zamalka, among them three children.
The new bloodshed came as volunteers recovered dozens more bodies in Daraya, where the opposition claims that between 300 and 600 people were killed during a five-day battle for the town last week.
One survivor, who gave his name as Abu Firas, said that more than 100 people were killed as soldiers went door-to-door hunting for residents who had escaped the days of shelling that preceded their sweep through the town.
“Some they lined up and shot in front of their wives and sisters,” Abu Firas said, adding that he had survived by hiding on top of a cupboard. “I saw them kill three men with knives attached to their guns and there are many others dead with stabbing wounds.”
Ban Ki-Moon, the United Nations secretary general, yesterday demanded an immediate investigation into the killings, which he called “an appalling and brutal crime”.