Dozens killed, wounded in airstrike near Damascus
BEIRUT (AP) -- A Syrian warplane blasted a gas station near Damascus Wednesday, killing and wounding dozens of people and igniting a huge fire in what could be one of the bloodiest attacks in weeks during the 22-month civil war.
Activists said a single Russian-built MiG fighter fired a missile that hit the gas station, setting off an inferno in the eastern suburb of Mleiha. Black smoke billowed from the site. An amateur video posted online showed charred bodies and gruesome carnage at the scene.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist who visited the site, said the missile struck as drivers waited in line with their cars at the station. Syria has been facing a fuel crisis, and people often wait for hours to get gasoline.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human said "tens of people were killed or wounded." At least 10 bodies were seen in an amateur video.
"Many of the people who were there were killed," Saeed said via Skype. "Body parts could be seen on the ground."
He said the missile fired by the MiG warplane caused a crater a meter (three feet) deep.
An amateur video showed several vehicles on fire and a cloud of smoke rising into the air. The videos appeared genuine and corresponded to other AP reporting on the events depicted.
It was unclear why the Syrian military targeted the gas station. There have been clashes and shelling in nearby areas in the past days.
Saeed said there were two other air raids in the nearby suburbs of Maadamiyeh and Deir al-Asafir.
"Since yesterday the raids have been very intense," Saeed said.
In the north, rebels attacked a sprawling air base Wednesday as the opposition expanded its offensive on military airports in an attempt to sideline a major weapon in the hands of President Bashar Assad's forces.
The Observatory said the rebel assault on the Taftanaz base was preceded by heavy shelling of the area, and the fighters appeared to be trying to storm the facility. Observatory director Rami Abdul-Rahman described the attack as one "of the most intense" on the airfield.
In the past few weeks, Syrian rebels have stepped up their attacks on airports around the neighboring province of Aleppo, trying to chip away at the government's air power, which poses the biggest obstacle to the opposition fighters' advances. As its control of large swaths of territory has slipped over the past year, the government has increasingly relied on its warplanes and helicopters to strike rebel-held areas.
Several past rebel attempts to capture the Taftanaz base have failed.
The Observatory said Syrian army helicopters were helping defend the airfield against the rebel assault. It said four rebels were killed in the clashes around the base, and one helicopter was hit by rebel fire.
The Observatory said the rebels attacking Taftanaz base included members of Jabhat al-Nusra, affiliated with al-Qaida and branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. The group's fighters have been among the most effective on the rebel side in their battle to oust Assad.
On Tuesday, clashes between government troops and rebels forced the international airport in Aleppo to stop all flights in and out of Syria's largest city.
Rebels have been fighting for control of Aleppo since launching an offensive on the city over the summer. The fight over the commercial hub has turned into a bloody stalemate. Rebels have captured large swathes of territory in the surrounding Aleppo province west and north of the city up to the Turkish border.
The rebels have been attacking three other airports in the Aleppo area, including the Mannagh military helicopter base near the Turkish border. They have posted dozens of videos online that appear to show fighters shooting mortars, homemade rockets and sniper rifles at targets inside the bases.
The LCC said rebels Wednesday bombarded the Mannagh air base, which has been subjected to almost daily attacks since late last month.
The Observatory also reported that eight shells struck the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the capital forcing some of the residents to flee the area that is mostly in the hands of rebels.
Anti-regime activists say more than 45,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad began in March 2011. Since then, it has evolved into a full-scale civil war with scores of armed groups across the country fighting regime forces.