Truce hopes fade - Syria fighting rages

DAMASCUS, Oct 22, (AFP): Hopes of a truce being implemented in war-torn Syria during this week’s Muslim Eid holidays are “slim,” the Arab League said Monday, as heavy fighting erupted in Damascus and on northern battlefields.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had on Sunday indicated a favourable response to his appeal to both sides of the Syrian conflict to observe a truce during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, which begins on Friday.
But Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli told AFP Monday that there is little chance of such a truce coming into effect.
“Unfortunately, hope for implementing the truce during Eid al-Adha is slim so far,” Ben Helli said on the sidelines of the World Energy Forum in Dubai.
“The signs, both on the ground and by the government... do not point to the presence of any real will” to implement a ceasefire, he said.
Even as Ben Helli spoke, fierce fighting raged across Syria, including around Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo and the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in the northwest province of Idlib. Reports also emerged of the abduction of two regime officials from Daraa in the south.
Brahimi said a truce during Eid al-Adha could allow the start of a more permanent peace initiative.
“This is a call to every Syrian, on the street, in the village, fighting in the regular army and its opponents, for them to take a unilateral decision to stop hostilities,” he said on Sunday.
Brahimi said he contacted political opposition leaders inside and outside Syria and armed groups in the country and “found them to be very favourable” to the idea of a truce.
President Bashar al-Assad during a meeting with Brahimi said he was “open to any sincere efforts seeking to find a political solution to the crisis based on respecting Syria’s sovereignty and rejecting any foreign interference,” state media reported.
Al-Baath newspaper, the ruling party’s mouthpiece, seemed cold to the idea however, saying rebels had already given their reply: a bomb attack on Sunday in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, in which 13 people died.
“Armed terrorist groups responded to Brahimi’s (ceasefire) appeal with a series of explosions in Damascus, including a suicide bombing in Bab Touma, leaving dozens dead or wounded,” it said.
On the ground, there was no sign on Monday of a let-up in the violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes erupted in the morning when troops tried to storm the rebel-controlled town of Harasta on the northeastern outskirts of Damascus.
It also said Syrian soldiers fought pitched battles with rebels near Maaret al-Numan and around an army base in nearby Wadi Daif, in Idlib province.
According to the watchdog, Monday’s clashes were the fiercest seen yet around Wadi Daif base, which has been besieged for nearly two weeks by Free Syrian Army fighters and jihadist militants.
The Observatory said a checkpoint near the base was in flames after it was attacked by the rebels, who killed at least nine soldiers.
Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway, has been the scene of intense fighting since it fell to rebels on October 9, severing a key army supply route.
In the northern commercial capital Aleppo, which has been battered by more than three months of clashes, insurgents blew up a bridge of a train line, used mainly to transport fuel, residents said. A military source confirmed the report.
Fierce machinegun battles broke out near Aleppo’s ancient Umayyad Mosque, as troops fended off rebel attacks on their checkpoints, said a military source.
“Until now we have kept them at bay, but this is a large attack.”
Meanwhile, “terrorists” abducted general prosecutor Tayssir Smadi from outside the civil court in Daraa, SANA news agency said. The Observatory confirmed the report and said gunmen also kidnapped Baath Party member Mahmud Akrad.
The Observatory said at least 84 people, including 22 civilians were killed on Monday across Syria, adding to a toll of more than 34,000 people the group says have been killed since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March last year.
And in Lebanon fresh sectarian fighting erupted on Monday, between opponents and supporters of the Syrian regime after Friday’s killing of a top security official in a massive Beirut car bombing blamed on the Damascus government.
On the Jordan border, a Jordanian soldier was killed before dawn on Monday in a clash with militants trying to cross into Syria, Amman’s information minister Samih Maaytah told AFP.
Meanwhile, the European Broadcasting Union on Monday deplored what it called targeted jamming of EU and US satellite news services in parts of the Middle East, blaming Syria and Iran for the meddling.
In a statement comparing the interference to an “attack on media independence”, the EBU said broadcasters hit included the BBC, France 24, Deutsche Welle and the Voice of America.
The union — an alliance of public service media organisations in 56 countries — said the problems “may link” to French satellite provider Eutelsat taking 19 Iranian channels off air recently, to comply with tougher EU sanctions against the Islamic state.
Eutelsat, which broadcasts more than 4,250 television channels to more than 200 million cable and satellite homes in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said last week that the “deliberate and intermittent interference” came from Syria and Iran.
Elsewhere, a top-level Vatican peace mission to Syria will take place “as soon as possible” but may be delayed by recent events, spokesman Federico Lombardi said Monday.
A mid-week departure of leading prelates had been anticipated, but Lombardi told reporters: “We of course must take into account the events of recent days,” in a reference to fighting in Damascus and related unrest in Beirut.
It is a matter “of responding effectively to the proposed goals of solidarity, peace and reconciliation despite the very serious events that have taken place recently in the region,” Lombardi said.
Pope Benedict XVI’s right-hand man, Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone, announced the planned mission last week.
The delegation will be made up of top Vatican officials including Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, head of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.
There will also be leading prelates from three countries with experience of conflict: Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Vietnam.
Fierce fighting erupted on the outskirts of Damascus on Monday when troops tried to storm a rebel-controlled town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.
Beirut meanwhile has been engulfed in violence since the murder on Friday of a top police official which was blamed on Syria.
Around 7.5 percent of Syria’s 20 million inhabitants are Christian.

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