Syria army steps up Damascus, Aleppo strikes

DAMASCUS - Government forces stepped up blistering attacks in Damascus and Aleppo on Wednesday after the regime said it was ready to discuss President Bashar al-Assad’s exit in any talks on ending Syria’s brutal conflict.

By (AFP)

Published: Wed 22 Aug 2012, 5:31 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 2:00 PM

At least 12 people were killed in a raid on a district of the capital, while fighter jets and artillery pummelled the northern city of Aleppo and rebels claimed seizing parts of a town on the Iraqi border, a watchdog said.

The United States and France again pushed for the embattled Assad to stand down quickly after a top Syrian official said Damascus was ready to discuss his departure as part of a negotiated settlement to the 17-month conflict.

“As far as his resignation goes — making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means that you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said during a visit to Moscow.

But he added: “Any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”

Moscow however, bluntly told the West not to meddle in Syria after US President Barack Obama hinted at possible military action if Damascus resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal.

“There should be no interference from the outside,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after his talks with the Syrian minister. “The only thing that foreign players should do is create conditions for the start of dialogue.”

But the United States was unimpressed by the apparent opening from Damascus.

“We still believe that the faster Assad goes, the more chance there is to quickly move on to the day after,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, dismissing Jamil’s comments as “nothing terribly new”.

On Wednesday, the violence on the ground showed no let-up after a bloody day that saw at least 198 people killed nationwide, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Fighter jets hit a rebel-held neighbourhood of the northern city of Aleppo and shelled several other areas of the city that has become the key battleground since fighting erupted there a month ago, it said.

AFP reporters also said they heard explosions caused by what residents said were air strikes around the towns of Marea and Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo.

Twelve people were also killed by troops in a raid on a Damascus district, the Observatory said, a day after it reported dozens killed when regime forces stormed another suburb of the capital and allegedly attacked a funeral procession.

It also said rebel fighters had seized control of an intelligence office and checkpoints in the eastern town of Bu Kamal on the Iraqi border.

The Observatory has a network of activists on the ground but its claims cannot be independently verified.

Syrian forces appear to be increasingly resorting to attacks from the air, particularly in the Aleppo area as the rebels continue to put up stiff resistance on the ground despite the regime’s far superior military might.

A top commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, said the rebels now controlled 60 percent of Aleppo, but a security source in Damascus dismissed the claims.

“Reinforcements from both sides are heading to Aleppo. It is a war that will last a long time,” the source told AFP.

Activists say more than 23,000 people have been killed since March 2011, as what began as a brutal crackdown on peaceful anti-regime protests has descended into a war between government forces and opposition fights .

The United Nations puts the death toll at 17,000 and says hundreds of thousands more have fled to Syria’s neighbours while another 2.5 million still in the country are in desperate need of aid.

At least 8 dead in Lebanon spillover

The conflict has spilled over again into neighbouring Lebanon, with eight dead in clashes that first erupted late Monday between pro- and anti-Damascus regime supporters in the northern port city of Tripoli, security officials said.

The international community has struggled to end the Syrian conflict in the face of divisions between the West and Syria’s traditional allies in Moscow and Beijing, particularly over the fate of Assad.

According to political sources in Damascus, Jamil was sent to Moscow to discuss a possible plan for a presidential election in Syria in which all candidates would be allowed to stand, including Assad.

Obama had put Assad’s regime on notice Monday that although he had not ordered military action “at this point,” Washington would regard any recourse by Damascus to its deadly arsenal as crossing a “red line.”

Syria admitted in July that it has chemical weapons and could use them in case of any “external aggression” but not against its own people, and Jamil said Obama’s comments smacked of “propaganda” ahead of the November election.

The exiled opposition umbrella group, Syrian National Council, said it was studying the formation of a transitional government, but did not say whether it would accept regime figures.

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault reiterated Paris’s call for Assad to go but said there was no question of it becoming directly involved in military action in Syria without UN backing.

He also acknowledged that his country was providing the Syrian rebels with opposition with “non-lethal” military aid.

The West has refused to arm the rebels — at least openly — but press reports at the weekend also said British and German spies were helping the opposition.

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