|Damascus meeting calls for peaceful transition
DAMASCUS Members of Syria’s internal opposition held a rare meeting in Damascus on Sunday to call for a peaceful end to President Bashar Al Assad’s rule and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi expressed hope that an upcoming UN General Assembly summit will help improve the humanitarian situation in the country.
The rebels’ meeting came amidst air strikes by the government troops on rebel bastions across the country, especially in the central province of Homs and Deir Ezzor in the east, a monitoring group said.
In another development, the Free Syrian Army said it now controls most of the war-torn country, as Syrian Christian opposition leader George Sabra told Pope Benedict XVI that the survival of the Damascus government poses a threat to the country’s Christians, the Syrian National Council said.
The opposition meeting in the Syria capital went ahead with the blessing of authorities despite the arrest of several opposition figures in recent days and accusations from rebel forces that it gave a false signal that Assad is seeking a political solution to Syria’s crisis.
Rajaa Nasser, one of the organisers of the Syria Salvation Conference, called for “an immediate halt to the shooting, a halt to the brutal and barbaric shelling, a truce and a pause for the fighters.”
Such a truce could “open the way for a political process ... which guarantees a radical political change, an end to the current regime and a serious and genuine democracy,” Nasser told the meeting organised by the internal opposition’s main umbrella group, the National Coordination Body.
Activists say 27,000 people have been killed in Syria since protests against Assad erupted in March last year, most of them in the last few months as the uprising turned into a violent insurgency.
Western countries, reluctant to intervene militarily, have called for the president to step aside but their pressure for UN sanctions against Damascus has been blocked by Russia and China, whose envoys both attended Sunday’s meeting.
“The main goal now is to put an immediate end to the violence in Syria, whether from the government side or the armed groups,” Russia’s ambassador Azamat Kulmukhametov said.
“The other goal is no less important, to convert the current confrontation ... into a peaceful political solution.”
Members of the internal opposition, which includes outspoken critics of Assad who have spent years in jail, said Moscow and Beijing promised to exert influence to protect Sunday’s meeting.
The internal opposition has been accused of being too passive by rebel fighters and members of the largely foreign-based Syrian National Council, a political group calling for the international community to arm rebel factions.
In a statement released after the meeting, the United Nations said Ban and Brahimi focused on how to address what they called “the appalling levels of violence in Syria.”
They also examined ways to progress towards an inclusive political solution that will meet the legitimate demands of the Syrian people.
“They agreed that the worsening crisis in Syria represents a steadily increasing threat to regional peace and security,” the statement said.
Ban and Brahimi also discussed the importance of the presence of world leaders at the United Nations in the coming days as an opportunity to encourage increased support for addressing the grave humanitarian crisis in Syria, the United Nations said.
At least 40 people were killed on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, as Syrian aircraft carried out strikes on rebel bastions, especially in central Homs province and Deir Ezzor in the east.
Apartment blocks in Albu Kamal, a town in Deir Ezzor province, were targeted as rebels and soldiers battled on the ground in several districts of the town on the Iraqi border.
“The insurgents are trying to wrest control of this strategic town” said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman. Losing Albu Kamal would be “a deadly blow for the government,” he added.
Troops pounded rebel-held areas in and around Damascus, in the second city Aleppo in the north, neighbouring Idlib, the central cities of Hama and Homs, and Daraa.
The group said warplanes also raided Jebel Al Akrad in Latakia. In Aleppo, rebels destroyed two fighter planes on the ground in Orm, a rebel said.
Assad’s only sister, Bushra, whose husband was killed in a July bombing, is now living in Dubai with her children, Syrian residents said on Sunday. Ayman Abdel Nour, editor-in-chief of opposition news website all4syria.com, said Bushra left after “differences” with her brother whose troops are locked in a conflict with rebels.