Syria Direct: News Update 2-24-15


February 24, 2015

Car bomb near Shiite shrine

A car bomb near a sacred Shiite shrine in government-controlled Damascus seems to indicate deep rebel penetration in a heavily protected regime area, pro-opposition activists told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

The explosion on Monday at the entrance of Sayeda Zainab, which killed seven people, came despite the Syrian’s government’s increased security in the neighborhood, where Shiites believe the Prophet Mohammed’s granddaughter is buried, Tha’er Damashqi, the pseudonym of a southern Damascus-based journalist, told Syria Direct.

The attack on the Sayeda Zaynab district came in the wake of a memorial for her birthday on Monday, reported the grassroots pro-regime Facebook page Victory of Sayeda Zaynab.

The operation was reminiscent of a similar car explosion that took place earlier this month in the heart of Damascus that killed at least six Lebanese Shiite pilgrims, another Damascus-based pro-opposition media activist told Syria Direct.

While Jabhat a-Nusra claimed responsibility for that attack, no group has done so for the latest bombing.

Sayda Zainab The remnants of a car bomb near Sayeda Zaynab on Monday. Photo courtesy of Sayeda Zainab.

Confusion surrounding prisoner exchange in Aleppo

Conflicting information emerged Tuesday surrounding the fate of dozens of regime soldiers captured captured by rebels in the northern Aleppo countryside, who appeared in a video uploaded to YouTube by the pro-opposition Aleppo Media Center February 18.

“The regime has offered us a prisoner exchange,” Abu Firas al-Halabi, spokesman for the Islamic Front, told Syria Direct Tuesday, adding that, “no agreement has been reached concerning an exchange operation.”

Citizen journalist Yassin Abu Raed from the northern countryside confirmed the possibility of a prisoner exchange to Syria Direct, relaying information from rebels’ military operations room that an exchange has not occurred.

Rebels reached an initial agreement with the regime to hand over the soldiers in exchange for female detainees in regime prisons, Abu Raed said.

Pro-regime strategic analyst Saleem Harba, who writes for state-owned daily Tishreen, said that “an exchange operation occurred and the captive soldiers who appeared in the video were freed,” in a phone conversation with MTV Lebanon Monday.

The soldiers were all Syrians from Aleppo and trained by retired Syrian officers, he added.

Pro-opposition media has focused heavily on portraying regime fighters in the northern Aleppo countryside as foreign Shiite militiamen.

Islamic State kidnaps Christians in Hasakah

Ninety Syriac Christians were kidnapped by Islamic State (IS) fighters on Monday in the northwest Hasakah countryside, reports the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The two villages of Tal Shamiram and Tal Hurmuz were among seven near the town of Tal Amar attacked by IS on Monday, causing hundreds of residents to flee, state media agency SANA reported.

Four YPG fighters were killed in the fighting defending the villages reported pro-opposition Masar Press.

During their takeover of Tal Hurmuz, IS fighters burned a church that was reportedly one of the oldest in the country, according to pro-regime news sources. Syria Direct could not independently confirm the report.

Kobani residents returning home from Turkey

Nearly 4,000 refugees have returned home from Turkey to the formerly besieged city of Kobani, reported Middle East Online on Monday.

“The latest figures indicate that about 4,000 people have returned to Kobani,” confirmed the spokesperson for the Turkish Disasters and Emergency Administration in the same report.

Twitter lit up Monday and Tuesday with pictures of hundreds of refugees returning to Kobani, a city once home to 200,000 people.

Estimates vary, however, on just how many people have returned home to Kobani.

“Until now, 12,000 people have returned to Kobani,” said Zara Mesto, the president of the Kurdish news agency, Welati Network, in a statement to Syria Direct on Tuesday. “Two thousand returned Monday,” Mesto said.

Returning home is however not without its difficulties. Basic services are still unavailable and many people’s homes were destroyed in the bombings as the Kurds wrested control of the town from the Islamic State in a battle lasting more than three months. The number of families returning to Kobani is therefore small, noted Mesto.

Although Kurdish forces were able to expel the Islamic State (IS) from Kobani late last month, fighting continues in the surrounding countryside. Following clashes with IS, Kurdish forces withdrew from two villages south of Kobani on Monday, reported ARA news.

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