Syrian men evacuating a victim following an air strike by regime forces near a bakery in the rebel-held town of Halfaya in the central Syrian province of Hama on Dec 23. (AFP)
UN envoy ‘worried’ after Assad meeting Syria secures chemical weapons

BEIRUT, Dec 24, (Agencies): The international envoy to Syria said after talks with the country’s leader Monday that the situation was “worrying” and gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war. Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission came as activists reported intense fighting in the central province of Hama, where anti-government gunmen entered the predominantly Alawite town of Maan. Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims. Brahimi said he and President Bashar Assad exchanged views on the crisis and discussed possible steps forward, which he did not disclose. He spoke briefly to reporters after meeting the Syrian leader at the presidential palace in Damascus.


“The situation in Syria is still worrying and we hope that all the parties will go toward the solution that the Syrian people are hoping for and look forward to,” Brahimi said.
Syria’s state news agency quoted Assad as saying his government supports “any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland’s sovereignty and independence.”
Brahimi has apparently made little progress toward brokering an end to the conflict since starting his job in September, primarily because both sides adamantly refuse to talk to each other.
The government describes the rebels as foreign-backed terrorists set on destroying the country. The opposition says that forces under Assad’s command have killed too many people for him to be part of any solution.
Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Brahimi’s two-day visit was to end later Monday. It is his third to Damascus as an envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.


The security situation in Damascus and elsewhere in the country has declined since Brahimi’s previous visits. Instead of flying in to the Damascus International Airport as he did on earlier visits, Brahimi drove to Damascus over land from the Lebanese capital Beirut because of fighting near the Damascus airport.
In Hama province, where rebels launched an offensive against army checkpoints and posts last week, opposition gunmen entered Maan and raised the opposition flag over the main police station, Hama activist Mousab Alhamadee said via Skype. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels included members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the US and is affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The Observatory and Alhamadee said the rebels shot down a Syrian government MiG warplane that was attacking rebel positions in and around Maan. The Observatory said at least 20 soldiers and 11 rebels were killed in Monday’s fighting.
A UN human rights report released last week said the civil war is increasingly a sectarian conflict between rebels from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and government forces largely supported by the country’s religious and ethnic minorities.
The Observatory said Syrian army helicopters bombed the town of Talbiseh, in the central province of Homs, killing at least 14 people, five under the age of 18. The Local Coordination Committees said the attacks targeted a makeshift hospital and a bakery.


Reports by anti-regime activists about a government airstrike Sunday in the rebel-held central town of Halfaya that killed scores of people also cast pall over Brahimi’s visit.
Some activists said the strike had targeted a bakery. Amateur videos posted online showed the bodies of many dead and wounded scattered in a street. The videos appeared to be genuine and corresponded with other AP reporting.
The Observatory for Human Rights said Monday it had collected the names of 40 men and three women killed in Halfaya. The group also reported seeing photos of the dead bodies of 15 more unknown men.
On Sunday, it reported 60 dead.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said he doesn’t believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government would use chemical weapons in the country’s civil war, saying in remarks broadcast on Monday that to do so would be “political suicide”.
Lavrov told the Russia Today (RT) television channel that recent signs that parts of Syria’s chemical arsenal were being moved — a development that alarmed Western governments — was an effort by the government to make the weapons more secure.


“Our information is ... that the latest reports about some movement of the chemical weapons was related to steps undertaken by the government to concentrate the chemical stuff ... at two sites, to make sure it is absolutely protected,” he said.
This correlated with information the Americans had, he said.
Citing European and US officials, media reports in early December said Syria’s chemical weapons had been moved and could be primed for use in response to any dramatic gains by rebels fighting to topple Assad in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people since March 2011.
The United States warned it would take action against such an escalation, though Syria said it would never use chemical weapons against its own people.
“I don’t believe Syria would use chemical weapons,” Lavrov told RT. “It would be political suicide for the government if it does.”


Russia has angered the West and some Arab states by vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions meant to put pressure on Assad.
Lavrov said on Friday that neither side could win the civil war, part of an effort to row back after a deputy was quoted as saying the rebels could win and that Russia was working on plans to evacuate its citizens if necessary.
In his RT interview, Lavrov defended Russia’s refusal to press Assad to quit, emphasising Moscow’s opposition to military intervention.
Reiterating criticism of NATO plans to deploy Patriot missiles in Turkey — which the alliance says are meant to bolster Turkey’s defences against a possible missile attack from Syria — Lavrov suggested the real goal could be to protect a radar installation that is part of a system the United States is building to protect itself against potential attacks from Iran.
Russia says the anti-missile shield will undermine its own security and the issue is a major irritant in Russian-American relations.

Asked whether the Patriot deployment was “more about Iran than Syria”, Lavrov said: “Well, that’s what some people say. And the configuration as it is being presented in the media really looks like it could be used against Iran.”
It is unclear whether Russia does intend to evacuate its citizens from Syria. Russian news agency Interfax cited a naval source as saying last week that Russia had sent warships from the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean in case it had to do so.
Itar-Tass and Interfax cited military sources as saying two landing craft had left a Black Sea port on Monday and would call at Russia’s naval supply and maintenance facility in the Syrian port of Tartous.
However, it was not clear whether the movements were anything more than part of a regular rotation. The Defence Ministry declined to comment.




 

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