Beirut: A shell hit a Christian area of Damascus and a car bomb exploded elsewhere in the Syrian capital on Saturday, a watchdog said, as clashes raged around an airport in the north of the country that rebels have sought to capture.
The United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Sohr) claimed the shell was fired on Bab Tuma, a Christian quarter of Damascus’ old city, without specifying exactly where it landed or from where it was fired.
Bab Tuma was targeted for the first time in the 21-month conflict by a car bomb in October that killed at least 13 people but has been spared the violent clashes that have torn apart the rest of the country.
Early on Saturday, a car bomb blast rocked the Rokn Al Deen neighbourhood in the north of the capital, the Observatory said, but gave no further details.
In the north of the country, president Bashar Al Assad’s army bombarded rebels positions in the Aleppo province and clashes broke out between insurgents and troops in the areas around Aleppo international airport, the Observatory said.
Rebels have launched numerous assaults in the past few days to try to take the strategic airport of Syria’s hard fought-over second city.
The airport was closed for two days from Tuesday after repeated insurgent attacks and had to shut again on Friday due to ‘thick fog’, the authorities said.
Sohr, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground for its information, said 16 people were killed in fighting across the country on Saturday, according to preliminary figures, and put Friday’s death toll at 130 in a conflict that started out as a peaceful uprising in March 2011 but which the UN says has now killed 60,000 people.
Meanwhile, the United States’ deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey began to help the country defend against any possible threats from neighbouring Syria.
“The deployment started early this morning into Incirlik,” in south-eastern Turkey, said Peter Woodmansee, missile defence chief of the US European Command. “Several aircraft landed very early this morning with the advance party personnel from 3-2 Air Defense Artillery [ADA] — the Patriot unit — arriving as well.”
US military personnel and equipment began arriving on Friday at Incirlik Air Base to support Nato’s Patriot batteries deployment at Ankara’s request.
The US will transport some 400 troops to Turkey in the next several days to operate two Patriot batteries, the Stuttgart, Germany-based US European Command said in a statement on Friday. The Americans will be based at Gaziantep, 50 kilometres north of the Syrian border. Additional equipment will arrive by sea later this month.
“The 23 US team members at Gaziantep are determining specific site preparations the US and the government of Turkey must complete before we put the Patriot firing batteries at Gaziantep,” said Woodmansee. “Specifically, living area requirements, logistics, communications, safety and operational aspects of protecting the population in and around Gaziantep in support of the Nato defensive mission.”
Germany, the Netherlands and the US agreed to supply the ground-to-air missile batteries, which Turkey requested after repeated cross-border shelling from Syria, including an October attack that killed five civilians.
The Germans will be based at Kahramanmaras, located about 100km north of the Syrian border; the Dutch at Adana, about 100km west of the border.
The Patriot systems are expected to become operational later this month.
Syria’s allies Iran and Russia, however, are opposed to the Patriot deployment, fearing that it could spark regional conflict and also draw in Nato.
Woodmansee, though, described the mission as “purely defensive”.
The Patriots will be deployed “50 kilometres from the border in the vicinity of the town of Gaziantep for the Nato defensive mission to augment Turkey’s air defense to de-escalate the situation along the Alliance’s border.”
Woodmansee said that the deployment of the Patriot systems would not compromise the effectiveness of the systems.
“The Nato mission is to protect the population,” he said. “This is why the US, Dutch and German units will deploy near population centres.”
Nato-member Turkey, a one-time Damascus ally, has turned into one of its most vocal opponents over the civil war in Syria.