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Syrian army helicopter downed in Damascus

A Syrian army helicopter has been shot down during fierce fighting in the capital Damascus. Opposition activists claimed to have downed the aircraft, as attacks on the capital's outskirts intensified.

The Syrian military helicopter came down in flames on Monday as President Bashar Assad's air force renewed its bombardment of Damascus and Syria's commercial hub, Aleppo.

State television said the helicopter crashed near a mosque in the eastern district of Qaboon, confirming earlier reports from activists on the ground. Opposition video footage showed the crippled aircraft crashing into a built up area.

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Syrian rebels claim helicopter downing

"It was flying over the eastern part of the city and firing all morning," an activist calling himself Abu Bakr told news agency Reuters. The rebels had been trying to hit for about an hour," he said. "Finally they did."

According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights regime, forces responded by intensifying their shelling campaign in many areas in and around eastern Damascus, where anti-regime sentiment is strong.

Western nations have been unwilling to bow to demands from rebel commanders for anti-aircraft missiles for fear they will fall into hostile hands. There is no evidence to suggest fighters had used missiles on this occasion. The Free Syrian Army has previously said it was responsible for the downing of another jet in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor two weeks ago, although the report could not be independently verified.

Inquiry into Daraya massacre

The latest clashes came a day after opposition activists claimed to have found evidence of a massacre in the small Sunni Muslim town of Daraya southwest of Damascus.

People killed by shabiha, pro-government militiamen, being buried in a mass grave in Daraya, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)

Syrian state television blamed 'terrorists' for the Daraya killings

The bodies of at least 320 men women and children were found in houses and basements after what activists described as a brutal five-day onslaught on the town. The victims were reportedly the targets of door-to-door "execution-style killings."

State media reported that the operation in Daraya had rid the town of "terrorist remnants." Pro-government television Al-Dunia, however, said "terrorists" not regime forces were behind the massacre. The reports are nearly impossible to independently verify due to heavy restrictions imposed by the government on foreign journalists in areas of unrest.

International pressure grows

Meanwhile, French President Francois Hollande stepped up the pressure on Syria Monday, saying France would recognize a provisional government and warning of foreign intervention if the regime resorts to chemical weapons.

Addressing French diplomats, Hollande called for an "intensification of efforts for the political transition to take place quickly" and called on the Syrian opposition to form a "provisional, inclusive and representative" government.

"France will recognise the provisional government of the new Syria as soon as it is formed," he said.

On Monday United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also expressed his "shock" at the killings, calling for an independent inquiry.

"The secretary general is certainly shocked by those reports and he strongly condemns this appalling and brutal crime," his spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters. "Where hundreds of civilians have been killed in Daraya, this needs to be investigated immediately in an independent and impartial fashion."

The United Nations estimates that more than 18,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in March last year.

ccp/sej, ipj (AFP, Reuters)

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