Syria talks as violence escalates

2012-12-24 20:01
A kitchen damaged in heavy clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria. (Narciso Contreras, AP)

A kitchen damaged in heavy clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and government forces in Aleppo, Syria. (Narciso Contreras, AP)

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Damascus - Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi held talks in Syria on Monday with President Bashar Assad, as Islamist rebels seized large parts of a village populated by the embattled leader's Alawite community.

The opposition National Coalition, meanwhile, accused Damascus of committing a "massacre" of dozens of civilians in the bombing of a bakery - an allegation fended off by the Assad regime.

"I had the honour to meet the president and as usual we exchanged views on the many steps to be taken in the future," Brahimi said a day after arriving in Damascus to launch a new bid to end the conflict.

The UN and Arab League envoy said the crisis was "always worrying" given the scale of the bloodshed.

More than 44 000 people are estimated to have been killed since the eruption in March 2011 of a Sunni Muslim-led uprising against Assad's regime dominated by his Alawite offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Brahimi, who last visited Syria on 19 October, expressed hope "all parties are in favour of a solution that draws Syrian people together".

"Assad expressed his views on the situation and I told him about my meetings with leaders in the region and outside," said the veteran Algerian diplomat who took over from former UN chief Kofi Annan.

Assad said his "government is committed to ensure the success of all efforts aimed at protecting the sovereignty and independence of the country," state television reported.

Brahimi's arrival in Syria coincided with reports at least 60 people were killed in a regime air strike on a bakery in the town of Halfaya, in the central province of Hama.

Deadly bread ration

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented 43 names of people killed in Halfaya, among them 40 men and three women. Activists said the attack amounted to a "massacre".

But the official Sana news agency blamed the killing on an "armed terrorist group" - the regime term for rebels - saying "many women and children" had died.

Video footage posted online by activists showed a bombed one-storey block and a crater in the road.

Bloodied bodies lay on the road, while others could be seen in the rubble. Men carried victims out on their backs, among them at least one woman. The video could not immediately be verified.

The opposition National Coalition, which is recognised by dozens of countries and organisations as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, blamed Assad's regime for the "massacre" in Halfaya, saying it "targeted children, women and men who went out to get their scarce daily bread ration."

Also in Hama, the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist groups overran on Monday large parts of Maan an Alawite village, said the Observatory.

The monitoring group said at least 11 rebel fighters and 20 regime troops were killed.

Rebels last week launched an all-out assault on army positions across Hama, home to a patchwork of religious communities, says the Observatory.

Gas bombs

While anti-regime sentiment in the province is strong, regime forces had so far suppressed any major signs of insurgency in Hama, which links strategic provinces such as Damascus, Idlib in the northwest, and Homs in central Syria.

Activists meanwhile accused Assad's regime of unleashing killer gas bombs in the central city of Homs.

The Observatory said six rebels died in Homs on Sunday night after inhaling "odorless gas and white smoke" emanating from bombs deployed by regime forces in clashes with rebels.

"These are not chemical weapons, but we do not know whether they are internationally prohibited," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

Russia, one of the few staunch allies of Syria, downplayed fears of chemical weapons being deployed.

"I do not believe Syria would use chemical weapons," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told English-language television channel RT. "It would be a political suicide for the government if it does."

Read more on:    bashar assad  |  lakhdar brahimi  |  russia  |  syria  |  syria conflict
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