Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday urged Western and Arab governments to review their policy on Syria, as battles raged between rebels and army forces in Damascus and around the flashpoint city of Aleppo.
“Why should Russia be the only one reassessing its position? Perhaps our negotiating partners should reassess their position,” Putin told Russia Today television.
“To us, the most important thing is to end the violence, to force all the sides in the conflict… to sit down at the negotiating table, determine the future and ensure the security of all the participants of the domestic political process,” he said.
“Only then move on to these practical steps about the internal organisation of the country itself.”
Putin has previously rejected providing asylum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and insisted that it still viewed either him or his representatives as an integral part of the negotiating process.
Moscow has stirred Western and Arab world anger by vetoing three UN Security Council resolutions that would have slapped sanctions on Assad during the nearly 18-month conflict.
The Russian foreign ministry, meanwhile, said it had full assurance that the chemical weapons stockpile amassed by the regime was safe and would not be used against Assad’s foes.
“We are fully confident — and have the official assurance from Damascus — that this country’s government is taking all the necessary measures to guarantee the chemical arsenal’s safety,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.
On the group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fierce battles and army shelling in Qadam in southern Damascus where anti-regime sentiment is strong, as well as shelling in nearby Assali.
Clashes also broke out elsewhere in the city, including in the Sayyida Zeinab area of the southeastern outskirts, home to an important Shiite Muslim shrine, said the Britain-based monitoring group.
— Alleged new ‘massacre’ —
In an alleged new “massacre,” 23 corpses including those of women and children were found in the town of Zamalka, in Damascus province, said the Observatory, as anti-Assad activists pointed the finger at the regime.
Zamalka has been a hotbed of anti-regime protest, army raids as well as clashes between regime forces and rebels.
The Observatory also reported that two kidnapped brothers of a Syrian rebel commander were killed on Thursday.
The men were seized at an army checkpoint on Wednesday night, it said. They were found dead in the Qadam district of Damascus amid a sharp increase in reports of abductions across the country.
Amateur video posted on YouTube by activists showed the bodies of the two men, identified as Mohammed and Ahmed al-Zakh, covered in blood. The head of one of the victims had been partly blown off.
In the central province of Hama, Kafr Zeita, another main arena of the 17-month revolt against Assad, came under fierce shelling by regime forces for a second consecutive day, according to activists.
A toll compiled by the Observatory said at least 78 people including 33 civilians were killed in violence across Syria on Thursday, a day after 176 people died, most of them civilians.
Elsewhere, a military source said that the army has retaken the strategic Barkum bridge south of Aleppo on the highway to Damascus, three weeks after rebels seized it.
And in the west of Aleppo city itself, regime forces have advanced towards the Rashid mosque in the Izaa district amid fierce fighting, a military source said.
Fierce clashes also pitted soldiers and pro-regime militiamen against rebels who attacked checkpoints in the Homs region of central Syria, said the Observatory.
It said at least nine soldiers and four members of “popular committees,” armed by the regime, were killed near the Crac des Chevaliers crusader castle and the Wadi al-Nassara, a valley which groups Christian villages.
Rebels on Wednesday announced plans to reform and stem the proliferation of militias in the hope of winning support from the international community which has been reluctant to arm them.
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.
At a meeting in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers condemned “the pursuit of violence, killings and ugly crimes carried out by the Syrian authorities and their shabiha militias against Syrian civilians.”
They also condemned “violence and killings of civilians from any side” in a veiled reference to rebels battling the regime, in a conflict which the Observatory says has cost 26,000 lives since March 2011.