Saudi prince calls for arming rebels SYRIAN TROOPS PUSH TO TAKE SUNNI HOMS AREAS

DAVOS, Switzerland, Jan 25, (Agencies): Arab officials including Jordan’s King Abdullah II called on global leaders Friday to take urgent action over Syria’s civil war and provide “desperately needed” help to refugees.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, a senior member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family also called for Syria’s opposition to be provided with sophisticated weaponry to help “level the playing field” in the country’s conflict.
With the UN refugee agency announcing that more than 6,400 Syrian refugees had flooded across the border into Jordan in the previous 24 hours, King Abdullah said the international community needed to provide more support.
“I urge once more a stepped-up world response to the Syrian crisis,” said the king, whose country is already hosting more than 300,000 Syrian refugees.
“The weakest refugees are struggling now just to survive this year’s harsh winter. More international support is desperately needed,” he told the annual gathering of the global elite in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.
He also urged international powers to come together to resolve the Syrian conflict through “a real and inclusive transition plan”.
“Anything else invites fragmentation, extremist power-grabs and more conflict and instability, with a disastrous impact on the region and the world,” the monarch said.
Experts and diplomats at Davos also urged more action, warning that Syria’s conflict was threatening to settle into a long and bloody war.
“Today there are more than 60,000 dead... Can we wait until it’s double that? Can we wait until it’s triple that? This is a shame on all of us,” said Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-envoy to the United States and Britain.
He said the global community needed to support Syria’s opposition against President Bashar al-Assad, including by supplying them with weapons.
“I assume we are sending weapons, and if we are not sending weapons then it would be a terrible mistake on our part. In Syria you have to level the playing field,” he said.
Ghassan Salame, dean of the Paris School of International Affairs and a former Lebanese culture minister, drew a comparison with his own country’s troubled history, saying few expected its 15-year civil war to last for so long.
“We have something like a military stalemate on the ground and this can continue for a long time,” he said. “Don’t underestimate the possibility of a protracted war that takes us into years and years.”
Calls were issued for more humanitarian assistance both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, where more than 650,000 refugees have fled.
International Committee of the Red Cross chief Peter Maurer said aid groups were finding it difficult to deliver assistance inside Syria and that there needed to be “respect for international humanitarian laws and principles”.
“We are definitely very much concerned by what we witness on the ground, by the expansion of the violence... by the depth of the crisis, and of course the difficulty to reach people in need,” he said.
The Syrian army has stepped up an offensive on opposition Sunni Muslim strongholds in the central city of Homs, bringing in ground forces and loyalist militia to try to secure a major road junction, opposition sources said on Friday.
Around 15,000 Sunni civilians are trapped on the southern and western edge of the city near the intersection of Syria’s main north-south and east-west arteries, crucial to let the army travel between Damascus and the Mediterranean coast, opposition campaigners in Homs said.
Rebels said they had moved into new areas of Homs this month to grab more territory, which could explain the offensive. Activists said that rebels had asked them not to report on the advances because it could provoke retaliatory strikes.
But activists in Homs said a barrage of army rocket, artillery and aerial bombardment had killed at least 120 civilians and 30 opposition fighters since Sunday.
In the south, eight members of Syria’s military intelligence were killed by an Islamist militant car bomb on Thursday night near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, opposition activists and a violence monitoring group said on Friday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the bomb was planted by Al-Nusra Front, a rebel unit fighting to oust Assad that the United States has labelled a terrorist group.
“We think the blast might have killed a colonel who has been leading the fight against rebels in the area,” Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Britain-based Observatory said. The building targeted is in the town of Saasa, 14 miles (23km) from the frontier with the Golan Heights, he said.
Syrian authorities have banned most independent media, making it difficult to verify such reports on the ground.
The nearly two-year-old conflict has now killed an estimated 60,000 people and a military stalemate has formed while hundreds of thousands of refugees flood into Syria’s neighbours.
The Syrian Interior Ministry called on Thursday for Syrian refugees to come home and said they would be guaranteed safety.
A statement on the state news agency SANA said the government was “offering guarantees to all political opposition sides to enter the country ... (and) ... take part in the national dialogue without any query.”
Few who left have returned, especially opposition supporters, and Assad said in a speech this month that he would not talk with opposition members he said had betrayed Syria or “gangs recruited abroad that follow the orders of foreigners”.
The war has reached every province in the country and fighting has encroached on the heart of the capital Damascus, with residents reporting the daily thud of artillery being fired on rebel-held districts in the outskirts.
US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN on Thursday that Assad’s mother Anisa Makhlouf and his sister Bushra had both moved to the United Arab Emirates. It is not clear why they left.
Activist Nader al-Husseini, speaking by phone from the western sector of Homs, said at least 10,000 pro-Assad shabbiha militiamen had been brought from the coastal city of Tartous to back up the regular army.
“They go in infantry formations behind the soldiers and their speciality is looting and killing civilians,” he said, adding that among dozens killed by the shabbiha were a family of five in the village of Naqira.
Husseini said 100 wounded civilians were trapped in Homs’ western neighbourhood of Kafar Aya and that the Free Syrian Army rebels had tried to negotiate a deal to evacuate them but failed.
Opposition sources blame shabbiha for the death of more than 100 Sunni men, women and children when they overran a nearby area 10 days ago.
Mostly Sunni Homs, a commercial and agricultural hub 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus, has been at the heart of the uprising and armed insurgency against Assad and his establishment, composed mostly of Alawites, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam and comprise about 10 percent of the population. There is a large Alawite minority in Homs.
Syrian authorities have not commented directly on the latest offensive, but official media have in the past referred to the need to ‘cleanse’ the city of what they described as terrorists who were terrorising peaceful neighbourhoods.
Tareq, another activist, said the fall of Kafar Aya and the adjacent neighbourhoods of Jobar and al-Sultaniya would make the position of Sunnis in the city untenable.
“These districts are the front line with Alawite areas from where rebels have been sometimes disrupting the road between Damascus and Tartous. If they fall the Assad army will have carved a big hole to proceed deep into Homs and secure the link to the capital.”
The United Nations on Friday urged Syria’s neighbours to keep open their borders to civilians fleeing the intensifying conflict and said that the refugee exodus into Jordan was “absolutely dramatic”.
More than 30,000 Syrians have arrived in Jordan’s main Zaatri camp this year, including 4,400 on Thursday and another 2,000 overnight, it said. Most were fleeing fighting in the southern area of Deraa, food and fuel shortages and high prices.
Turkey has said that camps are filling up as soon as they are built and officials in Jordan said this week it would keep its borders open but wanted other countries to help it boost its ability to cope with the influx.
“It is just absolutely dramatic the inflow of people that continues into Jordan,” Melissa Fleming, chief spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told a news briefing in Geneva.
Jordan now hosts more than 206,000 Syrians who have registered as refugees or await processing, while the government says that more than 300,000 Syrians are actually in the country.
A further 30,000 Syrians could be preparing to head to Jordan, according to the UNHCR’s latest assessment.
Across the region, 678,540 Syrian refugees had registered or were being processed as of Tuesday, according to UNHCR figures for Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and North Africa.
“It is fast approaching 700,000,” spokeswoman Sybella Wilkes told Reuters. “It is a challenge on every border the number of people that are arriving and crossing borders every day.”
Fleming said the UNHCR commended the Jordanian, Lebanese and Turkish governments for keeping their borders open and urged them to continue to do so.
Refugees report fighting in Deraa and its suburbs but the UNHCR was not in a position to assess military activities, she said. Water and electricity are only available for intermittent periods in parts of southern Syria.
Some 25,000 to 40,000 Syrians are reported to be massed in northern Syria along Turkey’s border, awaiting entry into the country which has 15 refugee camps and is building a further five, Fleming said.
“They are building camps as fast as they can and they are letting people in as soon as the camps are ready,” she said.
What began as a mostly peaceful movement against President Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 60,000 people in 22 months, devastated the economy and left 2.5 million people inside the country hungry, according to the UN.
Ted Chaiban, UNICEF director of emergency programmes who was in Syria last week, said food, basic medicines and drinkable water were getting harder to find, while families were living 20 to a room with minimal shelter and clothing in cold weather.

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