Syrian fighters battle on, ignoring Muslim holiday

Reuters

* No let-up in violence for Eid holiday

* Air force strikes across the country

* Fighting hampers chemical weapons team

By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT, Oct 15 (Reuters) - Syrian air force jets andhelicopters bombed rebel-held districts across the country onTuesday, the first day of the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha,and rebel fighters fired rockets into the heart of Damascus.

President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces are battling a civilwar which grew out of protests against his rule two years ago,was shown on state television attending morning prayers withministers at a Damascus mosque at the start of the Eid holiday.

But there was no let-up in the violence which has torn Syriaapart and divided the Middle East between Sunni Muslimsupporters of the rebels and Shi'ite backers of Assad, despite ajoint plea from regional Arab and Muslim organisations for bothsides to mark the occasion with a ceasefire.

Activists said warplanes bombed targets in rebel strongholdsto the east and south of the capital. Video footage uploaded onthe Internet showed explosions and thick columns of smoke risingabove the town of Daraya, on the southwestern edge of Damascus.

Rebels fired rockets and mortars into the Old City and theMazraa district in the city centre, activists said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors theviolence in Syria through a network of activists and medical andmilitary sources, also said air force helicopters carried out 11bombing raids on the rebel town of Latamna in Hama province.

It said the helicopters dropped large improvised explosives,or barrel bombs, on the town. Three children were killed in oneof the early waves of bombing, it said.

The Observatory says at least 115,000 rebels, soldiers andcivilians have been killed in the 2-1/2 year civil war which hasalso driven 2.1 million Syrians to seek refuge abroad anddisplaced millions more inside their country.

A further 170 people were killed on Monday, it said.

REBEL CLASHES ON BORDER

The fighting also pits rival rebel factions against eachother. On Tuesday activists said militants from al Qaeda-linkedIslamic State in Iraq and the Levant clashed with local NorthernStorm fighters at the Bab Salam border post with Turkey.

Video footage showed grey smoke rising from what theactivists said were Northern Storm positions which had beenshelled by the Islamic State fighters. The clashes were close toa refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border, they said.

The divisions among Assad's opponents and the growing powerof the Islamist fighters have made it increasingly difficult forinternational aid workers to operate in the lawless rebel-heldnorthern provinces.

Six Red Cross workers and a colleague from the Syrian ArabRed Crescent were abducted on Sunday after delivering medicalsupplies in the northern province of Idlib. Four were releasedthe next day but an ICRC spokesman said on Tuesday there was nonews on the other three.

The violence has continued despite a U.N.-endorsed missionto oversee the elimination of Assad's chemical weapons, whichwas set up as a result of a rare agreement between the UnitedStates and Russia after an August sarin gas attack in Damascus.

Experts from the Organisation for the Prohibition ofChemical Weapons have visited eight of a total of around 20sites where they are due to oversee the destruction of Syria'schemical arsenal and production facilities.

Some of the destruction work has already started and theOPCW - which last week was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize- has reported that Syrian authorities have so far cooperatedwith the process.

However the most complex stage of their work, thedestruction of chemical agents and precursors, has yet to startand the teams will likely have to visit at least one site - nearthe northern town of Safira - where fighting is continuing.

The Observatory said on Sunday that Assad's forces bombardedrebel-held Safira, which is located close to storage andproduction sites which are believed to be linked to Syria'schemical weapons programme.

Unless a local ceasefire can be agreed or government troopspush the rebels back the chemical teams would face the prospectof trying to work in the midst of a conflict, close to rebelfighters whose ranks may include anti-Western jihadists.

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