Bombings, fighting as Red Cross chief heads to Syria

AFP , Monday 3 Sep 2012

As the situation goes from bad to worse in Syria, the new head of the International Committee of the Red Cross travels to Damascus for talks with Syrian President al-Assad on the humanitarian crisis

Syrian refugees near the Turkish borders (Photo: Reuters)

The chief of the Red Cross was on Monday headed to Syria on a humanitarian mission, his office said, as an air strike on a northern rebel bastion killed 18 people and a car bomb rocked a Damascus suburb.

Also lining up for a visit to the violence-wracked country was new UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who has openly admitted that his mission is "nearly impossible."

The high-profile visits come as violence escalates in Syrian flashpoints and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported more than 5,000 people, mainly civilians, killed in August alone.

Peter Maurer, the new head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was travelling to Damascus on Monday for a three-day visit and would meet President Bashar al-Assad the following day, his office said.

The visit is Maurer's first to Syria since he took up his duties as president on July 1, the ICRC said in a statement.

During his visit, Maurer would meet Assad, as well as Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and several other ministers "to discuss pressing humanitarian issues," it added.

"At a time when more and more civilians are being exposed to extreme violence, it is of the utmost importance that we and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent succeed in significantly scaling up our humanitarian response," Maurer said in the statement.

Jihad Makdissi, a spokesman for Assad's embattled government, late Sunday announced that newly-appointed peace envoy Brahimi would "soon" travel to Damascus, expressing confidence that "he will listen to us." He gave no idea of when the visit would begin.

Brahimi however gave a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, in an interview with the BBC.

"I know how difficult it is -- how nearly impossible. I can't say impossible -- (it is) nearly impossible," he said.

He said he was "scared of the weight of responsibility. People are already saying people are dying and what are you doing?"

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoabi told journalists in Damascus on Monday that Brahimi's success depends on states such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

"The success of Lakhdar Brahimi does not depend on Syria," Zoabi said.

"Brahimi's success depends on certain states -- such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- respecting his mission, by closing their borders to armed men, and by ceasing to provide weapons," he added.

On the war front, an air strike by a Syrian fighter jet on a building in the northern rebel-held town of Al-Bab in Aleppo province killed at least 10 men, six women and two children, the Britain-based Observatory said.

"The victims included two children, a girl and a boy," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. "They died when the fighter jet bombed the building where they were sheltered."

The army also pounded several districts of the nearby city of Aleppo, the Observatory said, more than six weeks after the start of what Assad's regime warned would be "the mother of all battles" in Syria's commercial hub.

The air strike on Al-Bab followed a series of attacks on towns and villages in the Aleppo countryside, as regime forces fight to break rebel supply lines into the city.

The Observatory gave a preliminary toll of 45 people -- 20 civilians, 12 soldiers and 13 rebel fighters -- killed Monday in Syria after 132 people were killed the previous day.

Car bomb

The watchdog, which has a network of activists on the ground, also reported that a car bomb ripped through the mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Jaramana on Monday and that there were unconfirmed reports of several wounded.

The southeastern suburb was previously hit by a car bomb on August 28, when at least 27 people attending a funeral for two supporters of the Damascus regime were killed.

"There is an increase of the use of car bombs in Syria," Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Observatory, told AFP.

Concerned by the escalating violence, monarchies in the Gulf on Sunday sharply criticised Syria's regime for deploying heavy weapons against its own civilians and urged a peaceful transition of power in the country.

The six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council at a meeting in Jeddah also urged the international community to "assume their responsibilities and take measures to protect civilians" in Syria.

The GCC -- which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Kuwait -- in a statement issued after the meeting in the Saudi city condemned "the ongoing massacres which are due to the obstinacy of the regime in using heavy weapons, including planes and tanks" against civilians.

According to the Observatory, at least 26,283 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt began in March last year -- 18,695 civilians, 1,079 defectors and 6,509 troops.

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