Last updated: 5 September, 2012

New peace envoy says Syria death toll staggering

Rebels fighting to oust Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday announced plans to reform and stem the proliferation of militias, as they came under artillery and aerial attack on multiple fronts.

Assad himself came under renewed diplomatic fire from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said Syria had become a “terrorist state,” and from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, who told him to go.

Forces loyal to the embattled president again trained their heavy weapons on second city Aleppo, where the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 30 people, including seven children, were killed on Wednesday.

The Observatory said fighter jets bombed zones controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the northern city while ground troops simultaneously unleashed a barrage of shells.

Aleppo has been the target of a five-week-old government offensive aiming to dislodge the rebels who took over swathes of the commercial capital in July.

Relentless bombardments and food shortages have been reported in zones still held by the rebels, a rag-tag army of military defectors and civilians who have taken up weapons.

A rebel general said on Wednesday that the FSA would soon adopt changes aimed at overcoming divisions and addressing the growing number of militias fighting on its behalf.

Following talks due to end in around 10 days, the FSA would go by the name of the Syrian National Army, General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the military council grouping rebel chiefs, told AFP.

“After a long period, we must restructure the army because we fear the proliferation of militias in Syria and want to preserve the country’s future,” he said.

Among those areas that needed restructuring was the control of funds that reach rebel fighters, in order to “prevent the creation of militias because that is very dangerous,” said Sheikh.

He said reforms were key to winning the support of the international community which has so far been reluctant to arm the rebels “on the grounds that the (FSA) is not a real institution.”

On the battle front, the insurgents attacked Hamdan military airport near Albu Kamal town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Observatory said.

Having failed to persuade the international community to impose a no-fly zone, the FSA has increasingly targeted airports used by regime attack helicopters and warplanes.

“Fighting has been going on for hours inside Hamdan airport between soldiers and rebels, who have taken over large sections of the site,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that at least six rebels died in the assault.

In Deir Ezzor city, two people were killed, one of them by sniper fire, the Observatory said.

Several blasts were heard in the Damascus district of Jubar as it came under heavy bombardment, and explosions were also heard in Yalda just south of the city, the watchdog said.

In the central city of Homs, the rebel bastion of Khaldiyeh came under fierce mortar fire, and three children were killed when regime forces bombarded the Ariha area in Homs province.

UN and Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said on Tuesday that the death toll in the country was “staggering” and the destruction “catastrophic.”

The Algerian former foreign minister, who took up his post on Saturday, also warned the situation across Syria was “deteriorating steadily.”

The Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, says more than 26,000 people have been killed in Syria since the revolt erupted in March 2011. The UN says about 20,000 have died.

In its latest toll, the watchdog said at least 90 people were killed nationwide on Wednesday — 64 civilians, 12 soldiers and 14 rebels.

Turkey’s Erdogan, who turned against Assad when the Syrian leader resorted to force against unarmed protesters, used his strongest language yet against his erstwhile ally.

“The regime in Syria has become a terrorist state,” Erdogan said. “Syria is not an ordinary country to us. We do not have the luxury to remain indifferent to what’s happening there.”

Assad also came under fresh attack from Egypt’s president.

“I tell the Syrian regime ‘there is still a chance to end the bloodshed’. Now is the time for change… no time to be wasted talking about reform,” Morsi told Arab League ministers in Cairo.

He urged Assad to “take lessons from recent history” and step aside, in reference to Arab Spring revolts that overthrew the dictators of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Morsi, who last week slammed the Assad regime as “oppressive,” stressed a resolution of the crisis was the responsibility of Arabs.

Less stridently, China said it supported a political transition in Syria and defended its record during a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi called for all sides to end fighting, telling a joint news conference with Clinton: “Let me emphasise that China is not partial to any individual or any party.”

Clinton reiterated she was “disappointed” by Chinese and Russian vetoes of UN resolutions that would have threatened action against Assad to end the spiralling bloodshed.

The United States, meanwhile, unveiled $21 million in new aid to help those caught up in the conflict, boosting its humanitarian funding to more than $100 million.