76,000 killed in Syria war in 2014, deadliest year yet: Monitor

BEIRUT (AFP) - More than 76,000 people were killed in Syria’s brutal conflict in 2014, making it the bloodiest year yet in the country’s nearly four-year war, a monitor said on Thursday.

The conflict that began in March 2011 shows no sign of abating, with President Bashar al-Assad making a rare public appearance on a front line overnight to bolster soldiers and pro-government fighters.

The war has become a multi-front conflict and contributed to the rise of Islamic extremist groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

It controls a swathe of territory in both Syria and neighbouring Iraq, where government figures showed at least 15,000 people were killed in 2014.

In Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, recorded 76,021 deaths last year.

The Britain-based group documented the deaths of nearly 18,000 civilians throughout 2014, among them 3,501 children.

The majority of the deaths were combatants, including nearly 17,000 militants, 15,747 rebel forces and 22,627 regime troops and militiamen.

ASSAD VISITS FRONT LINE

Overnight, Mr Assad visited troops and pro-regime forces in the east Damascus district of Jobar in a rare public appearance.

The President’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts carried photographs of him in civilian clothes talking with two soldiers by a tank and shaking hands with a third.

“As the New Year begins, President Assad is in Jobar with the soldiers of the Syrian Arab Army,” the caption said.

“If there is still a bit of joy in Syria, it is thanks to the victories you are winning against terrorism,” Mr Assad was quoted as telling them.

State television aired footage showing Mr Assad sharing a meal with troops and being saluted by soldiers.

Jobar is a former rebel stronghold, but government forces have advanced steadily into it in recent months.

It is strategic because of its proximity to Abbasid Square in Damascus, which is key to controlling the centre of the city.

It also provides access to the rebels’ main rear base on the outskirts of the capital, Eastern Ghouta.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 200,000 people, displaced nearly half the country’s population and spilled over into its neighbours.

BLOODY YEAR FOR IRAQ

The ISIS group that emerged from Al-Qaeda’s one-time Iraqi affiliate now controls a self-proclaimed Islamic “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria.

Its expansion, and bloody battles with Iraqi and Kurdish forces, contributed to making 2014 Iraq’s bloodiest year since 2007.

Figures compiled by the health, interior and defence ministries put the death toll at 15,538, compared with 17,956 killed in 2007, during the height of Sunni-Shiite sectarian killings.

The spiralling toll included clashes involving IS, but also bomb and shooting attacks.

The fight against ISIS has drawn the United States back to Iraq, where it is training Iraqi forces and leading an international coalition to carry out air strikes against the group.

On Thursday, the Pentagon said coalition forces had carried out 17 strikes overnight in Syria, and 12 raids in Iraq.

Elsewhere, a video purporting to show two Italian aid workers kidnapped in northern Syria in August was posted online.

The footage showed two women dressed in black robes and headscarves identifying themselves as Ms Vanessa Marzullo and Ms Greta Ramelli.

The two, both in their 20s, were abducted at gunpoint by an unknown group in Aleppo province last year.

In the video, one of the women holds a piece of paper identifying the date as Dec 17, a Wednesday, and the other urges the Italian government to win their release.

The video title on YouTube identifies them as hostages of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front, but the footage included none of the group’s hallmarks and was not distributed on any of its official accounts.