Herve Bar, AFP
Last updated: 20 October, 2012

Syrian warplanes drop cluster bombs on Maaret al-Numan

Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Saturday pressed in Damascus for a truce to break the cycle of bloodshed in Syria, while the regime said a national dialogue free of foreign interference was the key.

Brahimi met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and opposition leaders tolerated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in a bid to win support for his plan to secure a truce for a key Muslim holiday next week.

But the talks were clouded by tensions in neighbouring Lebanon, where opposition leaders and the prime minister linked a deadly bombing that killed a top security official to the Syrian regime.

On the ground at least 108 people were killed in violence on Saturday across Syria, 42 of them civilians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, as fighting raged on northern battlefields and around Damascus.

The foreign ministry said Muallem discussed with Brahimi “a halt to the violence… in order to prepare for a global Syrian dialogue, free of any foreign intervention.”

“Such a dialogue is the only way to emerge from the crisis,” it said.

Muallem also complained to Brahimi about regional countries Syria accuses of hosting, arming and training rebels, saying their action was undermining the UN-Arab League envoy’s mission.

Syria has repeatedly blamed its neighbour Turkey as well as energy-rich Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting the armed insurgency.

Brahimi is hoping to secure a ceasefire during the four-day Eid al-Adha Muslim holiday starting on October 26, believing that this could pave the way for more permanent peace initiatives.

Hassan Abdel Azim of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria, an opposition group tolerated by the regime, voiced support for the proposed truce.

Such a ceasefire could pave the way for a political process if it was broadened to include the release of prisoners held by the regime and the supply of medical aid to beleaguered citizens, he said.

“The violence in Syria has reached a dangerous level which threatens the sovereignty and independence of the country,” Abdel Azim added after meeting Brahimi.

Taking a far tougher line, the exiled opposition says the regime must take the first step and halt its daily bombardments.

Brahimi is expected to hold talks with Assad later on his Damascus mission.

The envoy has visited several countries with influence in the Syrian conflict over the past week, including Lebanon and Iran, and warned that the violence could spread and set the entire region ablaze.

These fears were compounded when a massive car bomb exploded on Friday in Beirut, killing at least eight people including a senior police intelligence chief linked to the anti-Damascus camp in Lebanon, General Wissam al-Hassan.

Lebanon, which was under Syrian military and political control for 30 years until 2005, has been divided over the conflict in Syria and has been the scene of violence between supporters and opponents of the Damascus regime.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati linked the murder to last month’s discovery of bomb attacks allegedly being planned in Lebanon by Michel Samaha, a pro-Damascus former minister.

“I cannot separate the plot uncovered last month and what happened yesterday… After the discovery of explosives, logic dictates that the two cases are related,” Mikati said.

Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi, for his part, has condemned what he called a “terrorist, cowardly” attack. Such incidents were “unjustifiable wherever they occur,” he said.

Meanwhile regime forces and rebels clashed on Saturday around a besieged army base near the strategic northern town of Maaret al-Numan, which the insurgents seized on October 9, an AFP correspondent said.

Machinegun fire and explosions rang out from Wadi Deif base on the eastern outskirts of the town, and warplanes struck the town and its outskirts.

The Syrian Observatory said fierce clashes broke out on the Aleppo-Damascus highway south of Maaret al-Numan after rebels attacked a military convoy.

The military aims to regain control of the highway to resupply units under fire in the city of Aleppo for the past three months and assist at least 250 troops besieged in Wadi Deif base.

In Damascus province, a powerful explosion that rocked the town of Harasta was followed by shelling and clashes, and troops also arrested 20 people, the Observatory said.