BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian military helicopter caught fire and crashed Monday after it was apparently hit during fighting between government forces and rebels in the capital Damascus, an activist group said.
State-run media confirmed the crash in Damascus but gave no details. A video posted on the Internet showed the chopper engulfed in flames shortly before it hit the ground. The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.
Syria’s state-run media also reported that authorities on Monday released more than 200 people detained for their participation in street protests. It said those freed were never involved in acts of violence.
Authorities have issued similar pardons in the past, a practice apparently designed to isolate the rebels and create the image of a compassionate regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported the chopper crash, said there was intense fighting between troops backed by helicopter gunships and rebels in the western Damascus neighborhood of Jobar. State media said the chopper crashed in al-Qaboun district, which is close to Jobar.
With its forces stretched thin by fighting on multiple fronts, President Bashar Assad’s regime has been increasingly using air power against the rebels — both helicopters and warplanes. The military has for more than a month been fighting major battles against rebels in Damascus and its suburbs while engaged in what appears to be a stalemated fight in the north against rebels for control of Aleppo, the nation’s largest city and commercial capital.
The rebels are not known to have any answer to the regime’s warplanes except anti-aircraft guns that they mostly use as an anti-personnel weapon. Last month, rebels claimed to have shot down a Russian-made MiG fighter, but the government blamed the crash on a technical malfunction.
The Syrian conflict began 17 months ago with mostly peaceful protests demanding that Assad step down, but it has since morphed into a civil war. Rights activists say at least 20,000 people have so far been killed.
Monday’s fighting in Damascus followed mounting evidence of a spate of killings by government forces in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.
Activists over the weekend reported government forces going on a killing spree after they seized Daraya from rebels Thursday. Reports of the death toll ranged from more than 300 to as many as 600.
It was impossible to independently verify the death tolls because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict.
Video footage posted on the Internet by activists showed rows of bodies, many of them men with gunshot wounds to their heads. During mass burials on Sunday, bodies were sprayed with water from hoses — a substitute for the ritual washing prescribed by Islam in the face of so many dead.
The gruesome images appeared to expose the lengths to which Assad’s authoritarian regime was willing to go to put down the rebellion that broke out in March last year.
In an ominous commentary, Assad was quoted by Syrian state media Sunday as saying during a meeting with a senior Iranian official that his regime would carry on fighting “whatever the price.”