Syria raids opposition strongholds as diplomacy heats up

AFP , Friday 27 Jan 2012

The Syrian National Council, the biggest opposition umbrella group, condemns the offensives against opposition strongholds, for security forces killed dozens after its raid on the city of Homs and other cities

Syrian forces on Friday raided the rebellious city of Homs, where dozens have been killed, as Western and Arab nations rush to unveil a draft UN resolution that would condemn the deadly crackdown.

The pre-dawn assault, and reports of similar offensives against Hama and other cities, came hours after the UN said it could no longer keep track of the death toll in Syria, which it put at more than 5,400 over a month ago.

The Homs raid began in the Karm Al-Zeitoun neighbourhood, with the Syrian Human Rights Observatory reporting 33 people killed in Syria's third-largest city, 160 km (100 miles) north of the capital, bringing the day's total to 62 dead across the country.

The Local Coordination Committees, which organise protests on the ground, said that by Friday regime forces had pounded the Bab Seba neighbourhood with heavy artillery and rocket fire. Fighting was also heard in Baba Amro district.

The LCC said three people were killed early Friday in Homs and said two more were killed in Idlib province in the northwest and one in the Damascus suburbs.

The Observatory said another flashpoint central city, Hama, also came under assault in the early hours of Friday, with intense firing from heavy machineguns and loud explosions heard.

In the outskirts of Damascus, an 11-year-old boy was killed at a checkpoint in Hamuriyeh, the Observatory said, and in Aleppo, the country's second-biggest city, two civilians were killed when security forces "fired indiscriminately".

And a car bomb hit a security checkpoint at the entrance to Idlib on Friday, the Observatory said, killing and wounding an unknown number of security people.

The Syrian National Council, the biggest opposition umbrella group, condemned the offensives against opposition strongholds and said it was in contact with members of the UN Security Council to press for strong condemnation of Syria.

The latest wave in the government crackdown, now in its 11th month, comes as the West tries to ride diplomatic momentum sparked by last weekend's surprise call by the Arab League for President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

The UN Security Council was to discuss the Syria crisis later Friday when Western and Arab nations were to hold talks on a draft resolution denouncing the Assad regime that has been blocked by strong resistance from Damascus allies Beijing and Moscow.

The council's five permanent members -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- met Thursday on the new resolution and, in a sign that some sort of breakthrough took place, a meeting for later Friday was announced by French diplomats.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged the Security Council to speak with one voice on Syria and diplomats hope for a vote early next week.

"We have to seize this moment, we have to help these people. They have been oppressed for so long," Ban said.

But a senior Russian diplomat warned Friday the draft still falls short because it mentions sanctions and warns of further measures, raising the specter of military action. That has been a red line for Moscow ever since a UN resolution help justify a military intervention in Libya last year.

"(It) does not take proper account of our position", Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov was quoted as saying by ITAR-TASS.

If the draft is agreed, the council would say it "fully supports" the Arab League plan of January 22 that calls on Assad to hand over his powers to his deputy so that a national unity government can be formed and elections held.

But Gatilov later said "we cannot support any UN resolution calling for the support of Assad's resignation," adding that a quick vote on the Western-Arab draft was "destined for failure."

Saudi Arabia, which was the first country to pull out of a Arab League observer mission last week, said it would recognise the Syrian National Council as the "official representative" of the Syrian people, a report said Friday.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told an SNC delegation last week that the kingdom will recognise the Council as the official representative of the Syrian people, SNC executive council member Ahmad Ramadan told Kuwait's Al-Rai newspaper.

He did not say when Riyadh will make the move or whether it will be joined by its five partners in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which this week announced it was following Saudi Arabia's lead in pulling out of the widely criticised observer mission.

Meanwhile, the rebel Free Syrian Army said it had captured five Iranian soldiers in Homs who it said were under orders of the Syrian intelligence service.

The Turkey-based group, formed from deserters from the Syrian army, called on Iran to admit its support for the embattled Syrian regime and demanded the officers immediately leave the Syrian territory.

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