Assad offered peaceful exit Six children killed in air raid

BEIRUT, Feb 4, (Agencies): Syrian opposition leader Moaz Alkhatib urged President Bashar al-Assad on Monday to respond to his initiative for dialogue, saying it was aimed at ending the bloodshed and helping “the regime leave peacefully”.

Speaking after meeting senior Russian, US and Iranian officials at the weekend, Alkahtib said none of them had a plan to end the civil war and Syrians must find their own resolution.

“The big powers have no vision ... Only the Syrian people can decide on the solution,” the Syrian National Coalition leader told Al Jazeera Television.

The moderate Islamist preacher announced last week he was prepared to talk to Assad’s representatives. Although he set several conditions, the move broke a taboo on contacts with authorities and dismayed many in opposition ranks who insist on Assad’s departure as a precondition for negotiation.

Alkhatib said it was not “treachery” to seek dialogue to end a conflict in which more than 60,000 people have been killed, 700,000 have been driven from their country and millions more are homeless and hungry.

“The regime must take a clear stand (on dialogue) and we say we will extend our hand for the interest of people and to help the regime leave peacefully,” he told the Qatar-based channel. “It is now in the hands of the regime.”

Assad announced last month what he said were plans for reconciliation talks to end the violence but — in a speech described by UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi as narrow and uncompromising — he said there would be no dialogue with people he called traitors or “puppets made by the West”.

Syria’s uprising erupted 22 months ago with largely peaceful protests, escalating into a civil war that pits mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad, who is from Syria’s Alawite minority and whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

The violence has divided major powers, with Russia and China blocking UN Security Council draft resolutions backed by the United States, European Union and Sunni Muslim Gulf Arab states that could have led to UN sanctions on Assad. Shi’ite Iran has remained his strongest regional backer.

Alkhatib said that the international deadlock meant that only Syrians could stave off further humanitarian disaster.

“We will find a solution, there are many keys,” he said. “If the regime wants to solve (the crisis), it can take part in it. If it wants to get out and get the people out of this crisis, we will all work together for the interest of the people and the departure of the regime.”

One proposal under discussion was the formation of a transitional government, Alkhatib said, without specifying how he thought it could come about. World powers agreed a similar formula seven months ago but then disagreed over whether that could allow Assad to stay on as head of state.

Activists reported clashes between the army and rebel fighters to the east of Damascus on Monday and heavy shelling of rebel-held areas of the central city of Homs. The Jobar neighbourhood, on the southwestern edge of Homs, was hit by more than 100 rockets on Monday morning, one activist said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 180 people had been killed across the country on Sunday, including 114 rebel fighters and soldiers. Sunday’s death toll also included 28 people killed in the bombardment of a building in the Ansari district of the northern city of Aleppo.

Assad has described the rebel fighters as foreign-backed Islamist terrorists and said a precondition for any solution is that Turkey and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab states stop funding, sheltering and arming his foes.
Rebels and activists say Iran and the Lebanese Shi’ite military group Hezbollah have sent fighters to reinforce Assad’s army - a charge that both deny.

“The army of Syria is big enough, they do not need fighters from outside,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in Berlin on Monday.

“We are giving them economic support, we are sending gasoline, we are sending wheat. We are trying to send electricity to them through Iraq, we have not been successful.”

Another Iranian official, speaking in Damascus after talks with Assad, said on Monday that Israel would regret an air strike against Syria last week, without spelling out whether Iran or its ally planned a military response.

“They will regret this recent aggression,” said Saeed Jalili, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes launched a deadly raid Monday on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Douma northeast of Damascus, killing seven civilians, among them six children, a monitoring group said.

“Seven civilians, among them six children, were killed in an air raid on the Shifuniyeh area near Douma,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
At least 13 insurgents were also killed in fierce battles that raged in other areas of Damascus province, said the watchdog which relies on a broad network of doctors, activists and lawyers to compile its reports.

Fighter jets also blasted the rebel-held town of Talbisseh in the central province of Homs, as well as Kafraya southwest of the provincial capital, the Observatory said.
In the northern province of Raqa, a three-year-old child and his 17-year-old brother were killed in army shelling on the town of Tabaqa, as rebels made significant advances in the province which borders Turkey, it said.

At least 40 people, among them 24 civilians, were killed in violence across Syria on Monday, a day after at lest 178 people died, the Observatory said.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in Syria’s 22-month war, the UN says.
In other news, two Russians and an Italian have been freed in Syria in exchange for three captured rebels after being held hostage for nearly two months, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Monday.
The ministry said Viktor Gorelov, Abdessattar Hassun and Mario Belluomo, who were taken hostage by rebel forces on Dec 12, had been released on Sunday and were in good health.

“The Russians have already been brought to the Russian embassy in Damascus,” the ministry statement said in a statement on its website. “An Italian citizen who was kidnapped with them, M. Belluomo, will be handed over to the Italian authorities through the Syrian Foreign Ministry.”
It said the three had been seized by rebels on the way to the Syrian port of Tartus from the city of Homs.
Italian media have said that Belluomo, who was 63 when kidnapped, had been working in Syria as an engineer at a steel plant near the port city of Latakia.

The Russian Foreign Ministry did not say what the two Russians had been doing in Syria, but Russia media have suggested they also worked at the steel plant.
Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier and has long been an ally of President Bashar al-Assad.
Moscow has blocked three UN Security Council resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Assad. It says his departure must not be a precondition for a negotiated settlement of the 22-month-old conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people.
The United Nations said Monday it has started delivering chemicals to treat water consumed by more than 10 million people in Syria, nearly half of the strife-torn country’s population.
The first four trucks carrying 80 tonnes of such chemicals including sodium and chlorine crossed through the Jordanian border into Syria on Sunday heading for war-torn regions of Homs, Aleppo, Hama and Idlib, the UNICEF said.
It said it will deliver another 1,000 tonnes of chlorine in coming weeks to cities and communities across all 14 governorates of Syria.
“This shipment is very timely as supplies of chlorine in Syria have fallen dangerously low, making access to safe water challenging for many families,” said Youssouf Abdel-Jelil, UNICEF representative in Syria.
“This puts the population — and children especially — at high risk of contracting diarrhoea and other water-borne diseases.”
UNICEF said its ongoing work comes amid rising concern over the impact of Syria’s 22-month conflict on water pumping stations and other vital infrastructure as well as the implications for children’s health in particular.
“Reports say that the quality and quantity of water supplies continue to deteriorate in different parts of the country and in some areas very severely,” UNICEF said.
UNICEF needs $22.5 million to deliver life-saving assistance in Syria in the area of water and sanitation from January to June 2013. Only $4.8 million has been received so far, according to the organisation.

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