ALBERT AJI | AP
Published — Friday 11 January 2013
Last update 11 January 2013 3:01 am
DAMASCUS: Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime battled army troops inside an air base in the north on Thursday as government forces fought opposition strongholds near the seat of his government in Damascus.
In Brussels, a NATO official said the alliance on Wednesday detected the launch of an unguided, short-range ballistic missile in the country.
The official also said Assad’s forces fired ballistic missiles at opposition-held areas twice earlier this month. The official said all the missiles were fired from inside Syria at unconfirmed targets in the north.
The alliance has condemned the use of such missiles, saying it disregards the lives of the Syrian people.
The Britain-based opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighters entered the Taftanaz air base in northern Idlib province late on Wednesday and the two sides were still fighting yesterday. Opposition fighters have battled army troops for weeks for control of the Taftanaz base. The Observatory said the assault was led by fighters from Jabhat Al-Nusra.
The US has designated the group as a terrorist organization and says it is affiliated to Al-Qaeda.
Yesterday, government jets struck Opposition positions within Taftanaz base, the Observatory said. Airstrikes also hit eastern Ghouta district, an opposition stronghold near Damascus where fighters have been staging an offensive on the capital.
Also yesterday, nearly 50 Iranians were heading home after being freed by Syrian fighters in a prisoner swap.
Iranian officials told reporters at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport that the flight carrying 48 former Iranian prisoners had left Damascus en route to the Iranian capital.
They did not say when the plane is expected to land in Tehran.
A Syrian official said the Iranians left the Damascus Sheraton hotel early in the morning. They were then stranded for hours at the Damascus airport by bad weather that has swept the Middle East.
Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said world powers will have to step up their response to the Syrian conflict if the violence worsens and that all options were on the table.
He reiterated that Britain would seek to amend the EU weapons embargo on Syria when it comes up for review on March 1 to allow them to arm the fighters.
In an update to the House of Commons, Hague said Britain was supporting UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s efforts to end the 21-month-old conflict, and revealed he would visit London for talks later this month.
But the foreign secretary warned: “Given the regime’s intransigence and brutality, there is a serious risk that the violence will indeed worsen in the coming months.
“If that happens the international community’s response will have to be stepped up.
“So we will not rule out any options to save lives and protect civilians in the absence of a political transition in Syria.
“We will ensure that our efforts are legal, that they’re aimed at saving life and they support at all times the objective of a political transition and encouraging moderate political forces in Syria.”
Hague repeated that Britain would seek to amend the European Union embargo blocking the delivery of weapons to either side in the Syrian conflict. “No decisions have yet been made to change the support we provide to the Syrian National Coalition or the Syrian people,” he said.
“But European countries now have the flexibility to consider taking additional steps to try to save lives if there is no progress in the near future.
“Clearly the best outcome for the Syrian people would be a diplomatic breakthrough, bringing an end to the bloodshed and establishing a new Syrian government able to restore stability. “However we must keep open options to help save lives in Syria and to assist opposition groups opposed to extremism if the violence continues. “We should send strong signals to Assad that all options are on the table. We will therefore seek to amend the EU sanctions so that the possibility of additional assistance is not closed off.”