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Syrian Rebels Threaten Civilian Flights to Halt Weapons

The rebel Free Syrian Army warned that it is going to target civilian flights using the airports in Damascus and Aleppo starting Sept. 3 because it suspects flights are used by the government to supply weapons from Russia, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

The warning was posted yesterday on the group’s Facebook page. The London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper reported that rebel officials said they would direct attacks against the civilian airports because they are being used to support Syrian military operations.

Commercial airlines already have curtailed or halted passenger flights since the Arab League late last year imposed sanctions that included restricting flights and the violence has increased. Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national airline, said Aug. 30 it suspended flights between Abu Dhabi and Damascus due to the security situation following a similar decision in July by Royal Jordanian Airlines (RJAL) canceling flights to Damascus and Aleppo.

Syrian government forces killed at least 112 people yesterday, including 38 in Damascus and its suburbs, the opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mailed statement. More than 23,000 people have died since the uprising against Assad began in March last year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

In recent days, the rebels have reported downing several helicopters and at least two government fighter jets involved in attacks against opposition fighters and civilians. While videos have been posted online and broadcast, the details have not been independently verified.

Helicopter Downed

Syrian rebels shot down an army helicopter in the northern city of Idlib, Al Jazeera television reported yesterday, citing a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army it didn’t identify.

At least 50 Syrian soldiers were taken prisoners by rebels who seized the air defense headquarters in Bukmal city in Deir Ezzour province near Iraq’s border, Al Arabiya television reported, citing activists. The commander of the city’s air defense brigade was killed by rebels, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists.

Rebels won control of parts of the Abu Zhuhoor military airport in the northern province of Idlib, the U.K.-based Observatory said on its Facebook page yesterday. Rebel forces also attacked Kwers military airport in Aleppo and destroyed three war planes, Al Jazeera reported, citing activists.

The rebels haven’t said whether they have captured or obtained from foreign sources any anti-aircraft weapons. Earlier this month, NBC News reported that the Free Syrian Army had obtained about two dozen surface-to-air missiles delivered via neighboring Turkey.

Mursi Denounced

Separately, Syrian officials denounced Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi for backing Syrian rebels in a conference speech in Tehran that also put him at odds with host nation Iran.

Mursi’s comments were a “flagrant intervention in Syrian affairs” that will encourage further bloodshed, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad, said in an interview in Tehran where the 120-nation Non-Aligned Movement is meeting. Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said that “no one has the right to speak about legitimacy in Syria” except the Syrian people, according to the country’s official news agency, SANA.

The Egyptian president told delegates on Aug. 30 that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule is “oppressive” and his government has “lost its legitimacy,” prompting a walkout by the Syrian delegation. The comments underscored how Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood politician who came to power after last year’s popular uprising, is seeking to reclaim Egypt’s position as a regional powerhouse.

‘Irresponsible Groups’

Relations between Egypt and Iran, which is now the Syrian regime’s closest ally, have been tense for decades. Mursi, who was elected in June, is the first Egyptian leader to visit since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He has called for joint efforts by Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to help end the crisis in Syria.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told the meeting that the violence in Syria was “unacceptable” and blamed the countries providing arms and money to “irresponsible groups” of rebels. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are among the countries that are financing anti-Assad groups, while Turkey is hosting them.

To contact the reporters on this story: Zaid Sabah Abd Alhamid in Washington at zalhamid@bloomberg.net; Yeganeh Salehi in Dubai at yalehi@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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