International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Friday met Syrian opposition figures who said he was bringing “new ideas” to peace efforts, as blasts rocked Damascus and regime air strikes targeted rebel areas in Aleppo.
Brahimi held talks with opposition groups tolerated by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime such as the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which groups Arab nationalists, Kurds and socialists.
“We told Mr Brahimi… of our support for his efforts to resolve the crisis by ending the violence and killings, providing medical care and releasing political prisoners,” Hassan Abdel Azim, the bloc spokesman, told reporters.
“Mr Brahimi will listen to the opposition and officials and crystalise new ideas and a plan that could succeed,” he said after their talks in a Damascus hotel, adding that the peace initiative of his predecessor Kofi Annan would be amended.
“There will be new ideas and measures,” Abdel Azim told reporters.
He said a delegation of his group would leave on Saturday for China, a key Damascus ally, to urge Beijing to “put pressure on the regime to stop the violence, free detainees and allow peaceful protests.”
Brahimi, on his first Damascus visit since he was appointed earlier this month, said on arrival on Thursday that the conflict was deteriorating.
“We came to Syria to hold meetings with our Syrian brothers because there is a big crisis, and I think it is getting worse,” the Algerian veteran troubleshooter said, quoted by Syria’s official SANA news agency.
Brahimi, who succeeded Annan following the failure of his six-point peace plan, met Foreign Minister Walid Muallem shortly after flying in and is set to see Assad on Saturday morning, a UN spokeswoman said.
Muallem assured Brahimi of “Syria’s full cooperation” and stressed that any initiative must be based on “the interests of the Syrian people and their freedom of choice without foreign intervention,” SANA reported.
Fighting raged in several areas on Friday.
Regime forces used fighter jets and helicopter gunships to pound the northern city of Aleppo and the province of the same name, where fierce clashes also raged around a military airport, monitors said.
Warplanes bombarded the rebel-held towns of Al-Bab and Marea near Aleppo city, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that army forces and rebels fought around Minnigh military airport.
Despite shelling by regime forces, as seen in videos posted online, residents of Marea, Aleppo city and towns across the northern province came out for anti-regime demonstrations after the weekly Muslim prayers, activists said.
Protests were also reported in the provinces of Damascus, Idlib, Daraa in the south and Hama in central Syria, the Observatory said, adding that soldiers used “explosive devices” against protesters in Hama city, wounding several people.
It said the army also stormed the Sayyida Zeinab district of southeast Damascus province, making several arrests.
— Pope says arms imports must stop —
In the central Aleppo district of Midan, regime forces carried air strikes on two police stations which the rebels had taken over, according to Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.
“Whenever the rebels take a police station, the regime destroys them,” Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone. “Now no one controls these posts,” he said, adding that “regime forces have deployed throughout Midan to try and push out the rebels.”
In the Hanano district of northeast Aleppo, air strikes destroyed another police station in the hands of the rebels, Abdel Rahman said.
Just south of Damascus, the army fired live ammunition at an anti-regime demonstration in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmuk, according to the Local Coordination Committees — a network of activists on the ground.
Near the capital, at least 15 soldiers were killed or wounded in an attack on their vehicle in the restive town of Douma, where clashes broke out near the municipal building, the Observatory said.
In Damascus itself, three large explosions were heard in the late morning, an AFP reporter said. The Observatory said security forces swept its southern districts of Midan and Nahr Aisha.
The Britain-based Observatory said 45 people were killed on Friday, among them 13 soldiers and two rebels, revising an earlier toll of 50 dead.
It estimates that more than 27,000 people have been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year. The United Nations puts the toll at 20,000.
In neighbouring Lebanon, Pope Benedict XVI on Friday started a weekend visit with a call for an end to arms imports to Syria. “Arms imports must stop once and for all, because without arms imports, war cannot continue,” he told reporters.
A security source in Lebanon said soldiers there freed four Syrian troops who had been seized earlier by rebels inside their violence-ridden country.
Hollywood movie star Angelina Jolie, meanwhile, expressed concern about the threat of a winter freeze to Syrian refugees who have fled the conflict, a day after meeting refugees at camps in Turkey.
“With the violence in the conflict showing no signs of easing up and the numbers (of refugees) growing… it is a very large concern for all of us,” Jolie, a UN special envoy, told reporters in Ankara.
“I share everyone’s concern about the winter approaching,” she added, calling for help to make sure that “nobody freezes to death in this very very frightened time.”