Syria battles rage as both sides weigh truce plan

AFP , Wednesday 17 Oct 2012

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says warplanes targeted rebel blockade of highway in Idlib province despite announcements by both sides about their readiness to reach truce

Members of Free Syrian Army and residents pray next to the body of Ammar Ibrahim Reslan, whom activists said was killed by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, during his funeral in Binsh, near Idlib October 16, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

Syrian forces on Wednesday bombarded opposition belts in the country's battle-scarred north, as both sides indicated they are ready to explore a truce proposal floated by peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Warplanes targeted a rebel blockade of a highway in Idlib province which has halted the regime's efforts to get reinforcements to Aleppo, theatre of intense fighting for the past three months, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The early morning air raids also targeted the Idlib town of Maaret al-Numan and nearby villages, which fell to the rebels a week ago as they pushed their quest to create a northern "buffer zone" abutting Turkey, the watchdog said.

The fighting raged even as Brahimi, who arrived in Beirut on Wednesday on the latest leg of his regional tour aimed at ending the conflict in Syria, appeared to have won tentative support from both sides for a ceasefire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting on October 26.

The Syrian foreign ministry said it looked forward to talks with Brahimi on the ceasefire proposal he has been promoting on his tour, which has included stops in Egypt, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.

But spokesman Jihad Maqdisi stressed the rebels and their backers would also need to be involved.

"In order to succeed in any initiative, it takes two sides," Maqdisi said in answer to a question from AFP.

"The Syrian side is interested in exploring this option and we are looking forward to talking to Mr Brahimi to see what is the position of other influential countries that he talked to in his tour," he said.

"Will they pressure the armed groups that they host and finance and arm in order to abide by such a ceasefire?"

The opposition Syrian National Council said it expected the rebel Free Syrian Army to reciprocate any halt to the violence but that it was up to the government to act first.

"We would welcome any halt to the killings but we think the appeal needs to be addressed first to the Syrian regime, which has not stopped bombarding Syrian towns and villages," SNC leader Abdel Basset Sayda told AFP.

Rebel fighters "are only acting in self-defence, so it is normal that they would halt hostilities when the war machine does so," he added.

Brahimi was expected to discuss the truce proposal in his talks Wednesday in Beirut with Lebanon's leaders, among them President Michel Sleiman, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

His office had earlier said the envoy had appealed for Iranian help to broker the truce.

"He reiterated the call by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire and a halt to the flow of arms to both sides. A ceasefire, he said, would help create an environment that would allow a political process to develop."

The UN chief had previously called for a unilateral government ceasefire to be matched by the rebels afterwards, but that idea was rejected by Damascus as its troop losses mount.

On the battlefront, fighting raged near Maaret al-Numan even as the warplanes were carrying out their bombings raids, the Britain-based Observatory said.

It said the violence erupted early Wednesday when rebels attacked a six-tank convoy of government troops in the town of Maarhtat as it was making its way to reinforce the nearby Wadi Deif army base, the largest in the region.

At least five people were killed across Aleppo province, including in the city of the same name, as government forces pounded the area and clashed with rebels who fired rockets into an army base, the Observatory said.

The Observatory -- which relies on a network of activists, medics and lawyers for its information -- says some 33,000 people have been killed since the revolt began in March last year, among them 2,300 children.

A UN commission investigating rights abuses in the wartorn country warned that foreign militants fighting in Syria "could contribute to an increased radicalisation."

"The presence of foreign militants, radical Islamists or jihadists, worries us very much," commission head Paulo Sergio Pinheiro told reporters in New York, estimating there were hundreds of foreign combatants on the ground in Syria.

"Their presence can contribute to radicalisation... this presence is particularly dangerous in a very volatile conflict," he said.

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