Fighting in Syria killed at least 32 people Monday, activists said, and Saudi Arabia said stubborn violence was shredding the credibility of a U.N.-Arab League peace plan stipulating a truce and dialogue between President Bashar Assad and his foes.
Away from the battlegrounds, efforts to find a viable political alternative to Assad’s rule faltered when an exiled umbrella opposition group said it would boycott Arab-brokered talks to unite its splintered ranks.
The latest bloodshed centered in Rastan, where opposition sources said rebels killed 23 members of Assad’s security forces in fighting while heavy government shelling of the town killed nine people – further unraveling an April 12 cease-fire deal that is being overseen by international monitors.
Rastan, 180 km north of Damascus, has slipped in and out of government control during a 14-month-old uprising in which peaceful protest has given way to a sectarian-tinged insurgency that answers Assad’s violent bid to crush unrest.
“Shells and rockets have been hitting the town since 3 a.m. (midnight GMT) at a rate of one a minute. Rastan has been destroyed,” a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army in Rastan who declined to be named told Reuters by satellite phone.
He said that among those killed was Ahmad Ayoub, an FSA commander whose fighters were battling army forces he said were comprised of elite units and Military Intelligence members.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels destroyed three armored personnel carriers and seized two others, capturing around 15 soldiers.
Syria’s state news agency said “terrorists” assassinated a military officer in Damascus and an intelligence officer in Deraa, where the uprising against Assad first took shape.
Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who has previously called for arming the rebels, said Monday that special U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan was losing meaning as bloodshed was raging on.
“Confidence in the efforts of the envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League has started to decrease quickly,” he told a news conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
SANA, the Syrian official news agency, also said Abdelaziz al-Hafl, a pro-Assad tribal notable in the oil-producing province of Deir al-Zour, was slain Monday along with his son.
Opposition sources said Hafl was the 17th prominent Assad supporter killed in the eastern province in recent months.
A member of Hafl’s tribe said he had been repeatedly warned by insurgents to stop cooperating with the secret police, “but he did not heed the warnings and was bumped off today.”
There was no independent confirmation of any of the reports of fighting and killing from inside Syria, which has severely limited media access over the course of the uprising.
Meanwhile, the Arab League has postponed a Syrian opposition meeting it was due to host in Cairo this week in response to a request from Syrian opposition groups, the League said in a statement Monday.
The meeting had been scheduled to take place Wednesday and Thursday. The statement from the Arab League said the postponement had been at the request of the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Body.
The SNC said earlier it would not join Arab League-brokered talks aimed at healing its divisions.
“The SNC will not be going to the meeting in Cairo because it [the Arab League] has not invited the group as an official body but as individual members,” Ahmad Ramadan told Reuters in Rome, where the group is trying to decide its leadership.
In a statement, the group rejected talks it said were aimed at negotiations with Assad, who it said must quit power: “No negotiations can be held properly unless their aim is the end of the dictatorship and moving the country to democratic rule.”
Political jockeying within the SNC has prevented it from gaining full international recognition as the sole representative of the anti-Assad movement. Executive members told Reuters they may choose a new president or restructure the council in a bid to garner broader support.
The United States, Europe and Gulf Arab states want Assad to step down but his ally Russia has blocked more robust action against Syria in the U.N. Security Council while backing Annan’s peace blueprint.
Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov defended Russia’s weapons deliveries to Syria in the face of Western criticism, saying government forces need to defend themselves against rebels receiving arms from abroad.
“It is very sad to see very powerful foreign support for the opposition – both financial and military. This foreign support only emboldens the diehard opposition, prompting them to continue their terrorist activity,” he said.
Gatilov also blamed last week’s deadly Damascus bombings on Islamist extremists. “For us it is absolutely clear that terrorist groups are behind this – Al-Qaeda and those groups that work with Al-Qaeda,” he told reporters.
The twin suicide blasts in Damascus last Thursday killed 55 people and wounded 372.
In Brussels, the European Union said in a statement that it had extended sanctions against Syria, freezing the assets of two firms it said gave financial support to Assad’s government, and imposing travel bans on three people.
Source: Daily Star