|Syrian rebels fire at Assad’s palace
DAMASCUS Syrian rebels fired mortars at President Bashar Al Assad’s palace in Damascus on Wednesday but missed, in an attack underlining the growing boldness of forces fighting to end his family’s 42 years in power.
Residents said the heavy-calibre shells hit a neighbouring residential district that is home to members of Assad’s Alawite sect. State-run media said at least three people were killed and seven wounded in what it described as a “terrorist attack”.
Syria’s war poses one of the greatest foreign policy challenges for US President Barack Obama as he starts his second term.
An Islamist rebel unit said it targeted but missed the palace, a compound which sits on a hill overlooking the city that is mainly used for official functions.
State news agency Sana reported that shelling had hit a home and mini-bus carrying passengers in Mazzeh 86, which lies beneath Assad’s hilltop presidential palace, killing at least three civilians.
State television said a judge, Abad Nadwa, was killed on Wednesday by a bomb placed under his car.
Wednesday’s attempted mortar strike on Assad’s palace drew comparisons with a bomb attack in a highly guarded district of Damascus in July that killed four of the president’s top lieutenants.
Smoke was seen rising from Mezze 86, the mainly Alawite area where the mortars fired at Assad’s palace appeared to have landed.
“Ambulances are heading to the area and the shabbiha (pro-Assad militiamen) are firing automatic rifles madly in the air,” said a housewife who asked not to be named.
In London, Britain announced that it would begin direct talks with military figures in Syria’s armed opposition groups, as Prime Minister David Cameron called for a new international approach to ending the conflict. In a statement to parliament, Foreign Secretary William Hague said Britain would not supply weapons to the rebels and said officials would stress to the opposition groups the importance of respecting human rights.
Hague said opposition groups were playing an “increasingly influential role” in Syria as the conflict worsens.
Cameron’s office said the government had authorised officials to have contacts with military representatives of the opposition, although government sources stressed the initiative was about political dialogue, not providing weapons.
In Doha, Syria’s main umbrella opposition group began voting in a new leadership.
Some 400 Syrian National Council (SNC) members were to choose from 29 lists of opposition groups ranging from liberals to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as ethnic minorities and tribes.
SNC voiced hope that resolving the conflict in Syria would figure at the top of re-elected US President Barack Obama’s agenda.
Arab League chief Nabil Al Arabi urged the opposition to unify ranks against what he said was President Bashar Al Assad’s crumbling government.
“It is important to unify the opposition’s visions, especially because everyone knows that the regime in Syria will not remain for long and one day there will be a new situation in Syria,” Arabi told reporters in Cairo.