Last updated: 23 March, 2012

Clashes in Syria’s north as rebels set their sight on Damascus

Rebels and troops clashed in northern Syria as regime foes set their sights on the capital as the rallying cry for weekly protests on Friday, as the EU slapped new sanctions on Damascus.

In Geneva, the UN Human Rights Council ordered an extension of a probe into violations in Syria, and asked investigators to map out abuses since a deadly crackdown on protests in the country erupted in March 2011.

The resolution was passed by the 47-member council with 41 votes in favour, two abstentions and three — Russia, China and Cuba — against.

UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan’s spokesman said he was to travel this weekend to Moscow and Beijing, which have also blocked Security Council action against Damascus.

In Syria, “Damascus, here we come” was the slogan for anti-regime demonstrations on the day of weekly Muslim prayers, as posted by activists on their Facebook page, The Syrian Revolution 2011.

The army and rebels clashed in the region of Aazaz near Turkey, killing at least three soldiers and a rebel, and troops bombed the flashpoint central city of Homs, activists and monitors said.

The city of Aazaz is strategically positioned on the road to safety in Turkey for wounded and fleeing civilians as well as a supply route for Free Syrian Army rebels.

In Homs, also north of Damascus, “24 rounds of mortar fire have fallen since the morning on the districts of Bab Dreib, Safsafa et Warsheh,” said the Observatory.

Hundreds of people took part in night-time protests in parts of Syria’s capital, activists said Friday, ahead of the demonstrations called for across the country.

“Bomb us instead of Daraa, Homs and Hama,” cities where hundreds of civilians have reportedly been killed in the protest crackdown, they chanted in Rukneddin neighbourhood, according to activists.

On Thursday, the regime launched attacks on a string of towns, as rebel fighters struck military posts in several provinces and announced a command structure to coordinate strikes in and around Damascus.

The escalation came just hours after the Security Council adopted a statement urging Assad and his foes to implement “fully and immediately” Annan’s peace plan.

The initiative calls for Assad to pull troops and heavy weapons out of protest hubs, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, access to all areas affected by the fighting and a UN-supervised halt to all clashes.

Annan’s spokesman said a team of technical experts had returned to Geneva after “three days of intensive talks with Syrian authorities on urgent steps to implement” the plan.

“Mr Annan and his team are currently studying the Syrian responses carefully, and negotiations with Damascus continue,” said the spokesman.

The envoy had no plans at the moment to return to Damascus but telephone contacts would continue.

Monitors say more than 9,100 people have been killed in the unrest that started with peaceful protests in March last year before turning into an armed revolt, faced with a brutal crackdown which has cost dozens of lives each day.

Adding to pressure on Damascus, diplomats said EU foreign ministers gathered in Brussels had agreed an assets freeze and travel ban on “Assad’s wife, mother, sister and sister-in-law”, and eight other members of his entourage.

The Syrian first lady, Asma al-Assad, is a British national, however, and in officials in London said an EU travel ban could not prevent her from entering the United Kingdom.

“British citizens subject to EU travel bans cannot be refused entry to the UK,” said a Border Agency spokesperson.

But the ban would stop her from travelling to the other 26 EU nations, an EU diplomat said.

The names of the 12 individuals and two firms targeted will be published in the EU Official Journal on Saturday, when the sanctions take effect.

On the rebel side, the Free Syrian Army said it had set up a military council to coordinate hit-and-run strikes around the capital, so far largely spared the worst violence.

After intense negotiations between major UN powers, Russia and China signed up to the Western-drafted Security Council statement which also calls on Assad to work toward a democratic transition.

The Security Council on Friday still awaited a formal response from Syria. But a government daily, Tishrin, welcomed the UN statement.

Riyadh, Doha, Ankara “and other capitals which are enemies of Syria, and which wanted a military intervention … suffered a defeat on the international stage,” it said.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition coalition, has dismissed the UN statement, saying it offered “the regime the opportunity to push ahead with its repression in order to crush the revolt by the Syrian people.”

European states and Washington want to press for a full, binding Security Council resolution.