Syrian helicopter crashes over Damascus

A Syrian military helicopter went down in a ball of fire Monday after it was apparently hit during fighting between government forces and rebels in the capital Damascus, say activists.

France offers to recognize provisional rebel government

This citizen journalism image made from video provided by Shaam News Network SNN purports to show a Syrian military helicopter on fire and falling to the ground after it was apparently hit during fighting between government forces and rebels in the capital Damascus. (Shaam News Network/SNN/Associated Press)

A Syrian military helicopter went down in a ball of fire Monday after it was apparently hit during fighting between government forces and rebels in the capital Damascus, activists said.

A video posted on the Internet showed the chopper engulfed in flames and spinning out of control shortly before it hit the ground amid bursts of gunfire near a mosque. Rebels shout "Allahu Akbar!" or God is great, as the helicopter goes down.

The authenticity of the video could not be independently verified.

Syria's lightly armed rebels have grown bolder and their tactics more sophisticated in recent months. There have been claims of fighters shooting down helicopter gunships in the past, though the government has never confirmed it.

With its forces stretched thin by fighting on multiple fronts, Assad's regime has been increasingly using air power against the rebels — both helicopters and fighter jets.

In Paris, French President Francois Hollande ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure on the already isolated Assad regime, calling on the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government and saying France would recognize it once it was formed.

The announcement from Hollande — believed to be the first of its kind — also appeared to be an attempt to jolt Syria's deeply fragmented opposition into unity. But Syria's fractured opposition has been rife with infighting since the anti-Assad revolt broke out in March 2011, and it is far from clear whether it could cobble together a provisional administration anytime soon.

"France asks the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government — inclusive and representative — that can become the legitimate representative of the new Syria," Hollande said in a speech to France's ambassadors. "France will recognize the provisional government of Syria once it is formed."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which along with other activists reported the chopper crash, said there was intense fighting between troops backed by helicopter gunships and rebels in the western Damascus neighbourhood of Jobar.

State-run media confirmed the crash in the district of al-Qaboun, which is near Jobar and a hotbed of Sunni Muslim rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad. But the reports gave no details about the cause of the crash

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.

Bloodshed in Daraya

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.

Detainees released

The official Syrian News Agency, SANA, also reported that authorities on Monday released a total of 378 people detained for their participation in street protests. It said those freed were never involved in acts of violence.

The prisoners were released at the police headquarters in Damascus and the central city of Homs. 

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 government has recently intensified its offensive to recapture districts in Damascus and its suburbs that have fallen into rebel hands. 

Over the weekend, evidence mounted of mass killings by government forces in the Damascus suburb of Daraya.

Activists reported that regime forces went on a days-long 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 numbers because of severe restrictions on media coverage of the conflict.

Video posted on the Internet by activists showed rows of bodies, many of them men with gunshot wounds to their heads.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland cited reports from human rights activists that some victims were killed point-blank "in the most brutal way at the hands of the regime."

Despite the escalating violence, Nuland did not endorse France's call for the Syrian opposition to form a provisional government, saying "it's a matter for them [Syrians] to decide if and when they may be prepared to start naming folks."

American officials said Monday the French announcement wasn't co-ordinated with other nations that have been working on a diplomatic solution to the civil war and that the U.S. wouldn't echo Hollande's proposal any time soon.

American officials called it premature to speak about a provisional government when Syria's fractured opposition hasn't even agreed yet on a transition plan. And they cited persistent disagreements among the Syrian National Council and rival opposition groups, and between Syrian opposition figures campaigning outside the country and rebels fighting the Assad regime on the front line.

"We're nowhere near that yet," one U.S. official said.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Refugee crisis

In the north, thousands of Syrians fleeing violence were stuck at the border with Turkey after Turkish authorities blocked access to any more refugees while they rushed to build more camps to accommodate the deluge.

Syrian refugees rest at the Syrian side of Bab Al-Salam crossing border as they wait to cross to one of the refugee camps in Turkey, in the town of Azaz on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria. (Khalil Hamra/Associated Press)

The refugee crisis is just one of many examples of how the civil war is spilling across borders into neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan — all of which have seen a massive influxof Syrians.

A Turkish official said the refugees still stuck on the Syrian side will be allowed in "within a day or two" when a new camp near the border is ready. Another official said Turkey was also carrying out more stringent security checks on the refugees, adding to the delays in crossing.

Turkey fears that Kurdish rebels fighting for self-rule in southeast Turkey may be coming in through Syria. There are also concerns that foreign jihadists are moving in and out of Turkey to fight the Syrian regime.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of government rules that bar civil servants from speaking to the media without prior authorization.

Iran to hold peace plan talks

Vice-President Farouk al-Sharaa said Syria approved of an initiative Iran plans to present at a world gathering of nonaligned nations that will be held in Tehran later this week.

Iran says it plans talks on a peace plan to end Syria's civil war, but hasn't provided any details. 

Any Iranian initiative proposing dialogue between the government and the opposition would be a nonstarter because rebels refuse to talk to Assad and because of Tehran's close bonds with his regime. 

Al-Sharaa, in a statement issued by his office, said the way to settle the conflict without preconditions is by "achieving a ceasefire by all parties and launching a national dialogue."