Brahimi opens Syria truce talks

Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Saturday pressed Damascus for a truce to break the cycle of bloodshed, as Lebanon’s opposition blamed President Bashar al-Assad for a deadly Beirut bombing.

But even as Brahimi went into a meeting with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem in Damascus, fighting raged on northern battlefields, where regime jets resumed bombarding the key town of Maaret al-Numan which rebels captured on October 9. Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the talks were “constructive and serious” and that Brahimi and Moualem discussed “objective and realistic ways of halting the violence by either side, to prepare the ground for comprehensive dialogue between Syrians”.

It added that dialogue, rather than foreign intervention, was the only way to resolve the crisis. UN-Arab League envoy Brahimi is hoping to secure a ceasefire during the four-day Eidul Azha starting October 26, which he believes could pave the way for other, more permanent peace initiatives.

“We will have discussions here with the government, the political parties and civil society about the situation in Syria,” Brahimi said when he arrived in Damascus on Friday.

“We will talk about the need to reduce the current violence and about whether it is possible to stop for the occasion of Eidul Azha.” He is also expected to hold talks with Assad at a later date. Brahimi is backed by UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Arab League head Nabil al-Arabi who believe that if a truce is agreed during Eid, it could be extended to bring some respite in the 19-month conflict that has already killed more than 34,000 people.

Washington too has backed the truce call.

“We urge the Syrian government to stop all military operations and call on opposition forces to follow suit,” said a State Department statement.

Damascus has said it is ready to discuss the truce plan with Brahimi, while the opposition says the regime must take the first step and halt its daily bombardments. Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi condemned what he called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack. Such incidents were “unjustifiable wherever they occur,” he said.

On the ground rebels and regime forces remained locked in battles, with Syrian warplanes bombarding Maaret al-Numan again Saturday and clashes erupting on a nearby highway, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

One rebel was killed in fighting after insurgents attacked a military convoy on the highway south of Maaret al-Numan, which connects the northern city of Aleppo with Damascus, the Observatory said.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces and rebels clashed around a besieged army base near the strategic northern town of Maaret al-Numan on Saturday, an AFP correspondent said. Machinegun fire and explosions rang out from Wadi Deif base on the eastern outskirts of the town, which has since come under heavy army bombardment and air strikes since rebels seized it on October 9.

The AFP correspondent on Saturday saw 15 tanks deployed around the base to defend it, some camouflaged among olive trees. The sprawling Wadi Deif base, about 2 kilometres (1.25 miles) outside Maaret al-Numan, is surrounded by watchtowers and mounds of earth.

Rebels said up to 500 soldiers are holed up inside the base. Military helicopters have been seen dropping supplies that often miss their target and instead land behind rebel lines or in no-man’s land. The rebels have besieged Wadi Deif from three sides, including from positions along the highway that runs from Damascus to the key northern city of Aleppo, a stretch of several kilometres (miles) which they hold.

Regime air strikes have targeted the rebel-controlled areas along the key highway with 500-kilogram (1000-pound) bombs. On Saturday morning, a warplane made a low pass dropping a bomb on the city itself that caused no casualties. Another warplane later bombed the city’s outskirts after several passes at very low altitude.

Maaret al-Numan’s streets were largely deserted on Saturday morning, although a fragile calm allowed some residents to gather supplies and families to briefly visit their abandoned homes. There were almost no cars on the streets, mostly mopeds ridden by insurgents. A few shopkeepers braved the bombardments to open their businesses, but all activity stopped the minute the warplanes reappeared in the sky.

Tyres were set on fire at crossroads for the black smoke to obscure the vision of the regime pilots. “The storm will come,” 55-year-old retired teacher Abu Amir said, sitting in front of his shrapnel-peppered building. “For the moment, the army doesn’t have the means to retake the city. But who knows, if they put more resources into it,” a rebel chief said. “If they don’t manage that, the regime will take revenge by crushing us with air strikes.”

A column of army reinforcements which Damascus sent up from the south was still being held back by rebel forces five kilometres south of Maaret al-Numan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fierce clashes broke out on the Aleppo-Damascus highway south of the town after rebels attacked the military convoy.

In Damascus province, plumes of smoke could be seen rising from the town of Harasta after a powerful explosion rocked it, followed by shelling and clashes that left five rebels and two civilians killed, the Britain-based watchdog said.

Government forces arrested 20 people in Harasta, 10 kilometres (six miles) northeast of Damascus, while fierce fighting broke out in the nearby town of Irbin, leaving four rebels as well as a woman and a media activist killed. The Observatory gave an initial toll of 65 people killed on Saturday: 18 civilians, 22 soldiers and 22 rebels.

Source: The Nation

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