Beirut: Syria said on January 4 that a car bomb at a crowded petrol station in Damascus was set off by "terrorists", a term it uses for rebels seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad. The blast on January 3 night killed 11 people and wounded 40 at a station packed with Syrians queuing for fuel, which has become scarce in the 21-month insurgency against Assad, in the second petrol station attack in the capital this week, opposition activists said.
"Terrorists ... blew up an explosive device at Qassioun Petrol Station near Hamish hospital in Barzeh, Damascus, martyring several civilians," state news agency SANA said. The United Nations says more than 60,000 people have been killed in the civil war, the longest, bloodiest conflict born from uprisings across the Arab world in the past two years.
Dozens of people were incinerated in an air strike as they waited for fuel at another Damascus petrol station on January 2, according to opposition sources. The semi-official al-Ikhbariya television station aired its own footage from Barzeh, indicating the attack struck a government-held area. Barzeh's residents include members of the Sunni Muslim majority and religious and ethnic minorities.
The rebels hold a crescent of suburbs on the southern and eastern edges of Damascus, which have come under bombardment by government forces. Rebel forces also seized territory in Syria's north and east during advances in the second half of 2012.
The war pits rebels, mainly from the Sunni Muslim majority, against a government supported by members of Assad's Shi'ite-derived Alawite sect and some members of other minorities who fear revenge if he falls. Assad's family has ruled for 42 years since his father seized power in a coup.
US soldiers who will man Patriot anti-missile batteries to protect Turkey from the spillover of the Syrian conflict began arriving in the NATO ally on Friday, the US military said, but the missiles themselves are due later.
Turkey formally asked NATO for the missiles in November to bolster security along its 900-km (560-mile) border with Syria. Turkey repeatedly has scrambled fighter jets along the frontier and responded in kind when Syrian shells came down inside its borders, fanning fears that the civil war could spread to destablise the region.
About 400 US personnel and equipment from the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Air Defense Artillery, based at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, will arrive over the next several days by US military airlift, the US European Command said on its website.
No US Patriot missiles arrived on January 4, however, according to a military source, and it will be several weeks before the missiles, supplied by Germany and the Netherlands, get to Turkey. The US troops, who began arriving at Incirlik air base in Turkey, will man two US Patriot batteries out of a total of six batteries that have been promised by NATO allies.
In Washington, a Pentagon spokeswoman said the first US military personnel belonging to the Patriot unit began arriving in Turkey on January 4 and more will arrive over the coming days. The equipment would start arriving a few days later, with the aim of having the US Patriot batteries in place by mid-January, she said.
Fighting has forced 560,000 Syrians to flee to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations, causing a growing humanitarian problem in the region. Lebanon, a country which has so far tried to distance itself from the conflict for fear it will inflame sectarian tensions, approved a plan to start registering 170,000 Syrian refugees and ask international donors for $180 million in aid.
"The Lebanese state will register the refugees...and guarantee aid and protection for the actual refugees in Lebanon," Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour said after a cabinet session on Thursday night. Most Sunni-ruled Arab states, as well as the West and Turkey have called for Assad to step down. He is supported by Russia and Shi'ite Iran.
A Lebanese citizen who crossed into Syria through a mountainous frontier region said the army appeared to have withdrawn from several border posts and villages in the area. Rebels controlled a line of border towns and villages north of the capital Damascus, stretching about 40 km (25 miles) from Yabroud south to Rankus, said the man, who did not want to be named and visited Syria on January 2 and January 3.
Rebels in the area reported that some of Assad's forces have pulled back to defend the main north-south highway linking Syria's main cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, while others were sent to reinforce the northern approach to Damascus.
"The border is controlled by the Free Syrian Army rebels," he said on January 4, adding he had crossed through mountainous terrain, covered in parts by more than a metre of snow.
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