Border clashes in Syria rage amid reports Assad tested chemical weapons system

Intense fighting raged on Tuesday between Syrian troops and rebels at the Tel Abyad border gate along the Turkish border and some houses in the town of Akcakale on the Turkish side have been hit by stray bullets, a Turkish official said.

A member of the Free Syrian Army fires an anti-aircraft machine gun in the northern town of Saraqib, near Idlib.

The Free Syrian army claimed they gained full control of the border gate, according to Al Arabiya TV.

The official said the rebels were trying to gain control of the Tel Abyad border gate. He said windows in some Turkish houses had been hit.

Earlier on Tuesday, U.N. officials denounced gross human rights violations by both sides in Syria, as fighting also raged in the city of Aleppo with the army claiming to have secured much of a strategic district, as the German press reported that the Syrian army has tested a chemical weapons delivery system.

“Midan is under the control of the army,” a military official told AFP Monday, a claim backed up by a correspondent on the ground.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least four rebels were killed in fighting across the northern city, which has been the scene of battles since July 20.

The Observatory also reported that the army shelled the strongly pro-rebel district of al-Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus in preparation for storming it, with at least one person reportedly killed and several others wounded.

Shelling was also reported in several districts of the central city of Homs, which the army had claimed to have under its control.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, pro-regime gunmen killed three members of the same family in the town of Tamanaa, said the watchdog.

Heightened fears over chemical weaponry
Meanwhile the German magazine Der Spiegel reported Monday that the Syrian army has tested a chemical weapons delivery system, firing shells at a research center in its northwestern desert region. The periodical cited “witnesses.”

“Five or six empty shells devised for delivering chemical agents were fired by tanks and aircraft, at a site called Diraiham in the desert near the village of Khanasir,” east of the city of Aleppo, Der Spiegel reported.

“Five or six empty shells devised for delivering chemical agents were fired by tanks and aircraft, at a site called Diraiham in the desert near the village of Khanasir,” east of the city of Aleppo, the periodical reported.

The Safira research center in question is regarded as Syria’s largest testing site for chemical weapons. It is officially referred to as a “scientific research center.”

Iranian officers, believed to be members of the Revolutionary Guards, were flown in by helicopter for the testing, according to the witness statements cited.

Scientists from Iran and North Korea are said to work in the expansive, fenced-off complex. According to Western intelligence agencies, they produce deadly chemical agents such as sarin and mustard gas.

Last month French President Francois Hollande warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime would be a legitimate reason for a foreign intervention.

Rights abuses in Syria
In Geneva, the head of a U.N. commission investigating rights abuses in Syria said they had soared dramatically in recent weeks and that the U.N. Security Council should take “appropriate action” against war criminals.

“Gross violations of human rights have grown in number, in pace and in scale,” Paulo Sergio Pinheiro said, adding that President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and the rebels, to a lesser extent — had committed war crimes.

“In a dramatic escalation, indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the form of air strikes and artillery shelling leveled against residential neighborhoods are occurring daily,” he said.

The indiscriminate use of weapons, he added, combined with a failure to protect civilians, reflected “a disturbing disregard for established rules of armed conflict.”

Robert Serry, U.N. coordinator for the Middle East peace process, meanwhile told the Security Council that “indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas by government forces with heavy weapons, tanks and air assets has increased.”

For its part, Human Rights Watch called on the Security Council to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

“This is one measure that all Security Council members, including Russia, should find it easy to agree on if they are truly concerned about the violations committed in Syria,” the New York-based group’s Nadim Houry said.

“Extrajudicial or summary executions of detainees in the context of an armed conflict are war crimes, and may constitute crimes against humanity if they are widespread and systematic,” he added, in a statement.

Contact Group meets in Cairo
In Cairo, a meeting on the Syria crisis convened by regional powers on Monday, setting back a forum grouping Iran — President Assad’s main Middle East ally — and his leading opponents in the region, according to Reuters.

The “contact group” of Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia arose from an initiative by Cairo, whose new president is looking to make his mark with what he has described as a balanced Egyptian foreign policy.

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have all demanded that Assad step down, while Iran has accused states including Saudi Arabia and Turkey of helping the rebels who are fighting to topple him.

The contact group decided to meet again in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr said after the Cairo meeting during a joint news conference with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts.

He said the four states had a “great role” to play and could table a proposal that “we hope, God willing, will produce a result that satisfies everyone … But this needs more talks,” he said. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu spoke of the need for “regional ownership of the issues of our region.”

Brahimi meets Arab League chief privately
The U.N.-Arab League mediator on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, also visited Cairo on Monday after making his first trip to Damascus in his new post. Brahimi met privately with Arab League chief Nabil al-Araby in al-Araby’s home in Cairo.

Brahimi told Reuters that his visit to Damascus made him “form an inclusive image about the situation in Syria that confirmed that the situation is extremely dangerous and escalating.”

Brahimi said he would next go to New York where he would report to the U.N. Security Council and Arab ministers, who will be there to attend the U.N. General Assembly. He said he would then return to Syria, without saying when.

Davutoglu said Brahimi should have a different mandate from Kofi Annan, the ex-U.N. secretary-general who quit in August as Syria envoy. He had complained about the diplomatic deadlock at the Security Council.

“He must not allow Assad to buy more time with this type of mission,” Davutoglu said after meeting Mursi earlier in the day. “Assad misused Kofi Annan’s mission to increase pressure on people. Brahimi shouldn’t give Assad this chance.”

Turkey, which threw support behind Brahimi’s mission, is already home to some 80,000 registered refugees in several camps in the southeast region bordering Syria, but has said it can handle no more than 100,000 refugees.

The death toll from the 18-month conflict has risen to more than 27,000 people, according to the Observatory, while the United Nations puts the figure at 20,000.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast meanwhile said Iran “does not have any military presence” in Syria, denying remarks by the head of the country’s Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammed Ali Jafari.

Source: Al-Arabiya News

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