BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria vows to work with new UN envoy as fighting rages

DAMASCUS: Syria said Thursday that it is ready to work with new UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and hopes he can pave the way for "national dialogue," even as fighting raged in both the capital and second city Aleppo.

State media hailed the recapture by the army of three Christian neighbourhoods in the heart of Aleppo, but clashes between troops and rebel fighters raged in other parts of the city and in the southern belt of Damascus.

Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad accused neighbouring Turkey of providing the rebels with arms and rear bases, as Turkish and US officials held talks on hastening President Bashar al-Assad's fall.

Muqdad said Damascus would cooperate with Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat named as UN-Arab League envoy to replace former UN chief Kofi Annan after his announcement on August 2 that he was stepping down following the failure to implement his six-point peace plan.

"We have informed the United Nations that we accept the appointment of Mr Brahimi," Muqdad told a Damascus news conference.

"We are looking forward to seeing... what ideas he is giving for potential solutions for the problem here," he added.

Muqdad's comments came after Damascus on Monday sharply criticised comments by the new envoy that a civil war was already underway in Syria and that his mission was to end it.

Muqdad said he hoped Brahimi would help kick-start a process of national dialogue.

"There will be no winners in Syria, as the West is betting there will be. Syria will win, thanks to its people, its leader and its government, which will make the right choices in the midst of these difficult circumstances," he said.

Muqdad said "foreign interference" was the leading cause of the 17-month-conflict, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday has now killed nearly 25,000 people since March last year.

"The (factors) that have fuelled this crisis are well-known -- armed groups, terrorist groups supported by regional circles, including the dangerous support by Turkey of terrorist gangs, providing these with sophisticated weapons," he said.

Turkey has repeatedly denied giving arms to the rebels but it has given sanctuary to the defecting soldiers who formed the original kernel of the Free Syrian Army as well as to tens of thousands of civilian refugees.

Turkish and US officials held their first "operational planning" meeting aimed at hastening the end of Assad's regime.

Turkish foreign ministry deputy under-secretary Halit Cevik and US ambassador Elisabeth Jones led the delegations made up of intelligence agents, military officials and diplomats at the Ankara talks, a foreign ministry source told AFP.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced plans for the forum following talks in Istanbul on August 11 as Washington signalled it was looking for new ways to put pressure on Assad after his traditional allies Beijing and Moscow blocked action at the UN Security Council.

'Fear is everywhere'

Aleppo residents reported heavy exchanges in the heart of the city during the army's recapture of three Christian neighbourhoods seized by the rebels at the weekend.

"We have had the worst two days of our lives," Sonia, the wife of a wealthy businessman in the northern city which is also Syria's commercial capital, told AFP by telephone.

"If our house weren't built like a fortress, we'd all be dead," said the resident of Telal, which the army seized on Wednesday along with Jdeide and Sulamaniyeh.

Jdeide and Telal were once frequented by tourists for their restaurants and handicraft shops but the heavy fighting between troops and fighters has left streets deserted apart from local youths on patrol, residents said.

After more than a month of fighting, the battle for Aleppo continued with fierce clashes and bombardment in other neighbourhoods of the city on Thursday, militants and residents said.

In the capital, fighting focused on a belt of southern neighbourhoods and suburbs where opposition to the government runs strong, activists said.

"Parts of Damascus look like Gaza, with the army deployed on the outside, setting up major checkpoints, but unable to get in," said a Damascus

resident and opposition activist who identified herself as Samara.

"Fear is everywhere," she told AFP via Skype.

The army shelled the south Damascus district of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, scene of bitter fighting last month, as well as the town of Daraya, on the capital's outskirts, for a second day in a row, the Syrian Observatory said.

"The situation in Daraya is tragic," said Abu Kinan, an activist in the suburb of some 200,000 people. "I am alive now, but they are shelling non-stop. Death is everywhere."

A rebel commander in Damascus who identified himself only as Selim said 80 percent of roads into the capital were now closed.

"The army is focusing its actions in the southern areas of Damascus and it is trying to cut off all connection between the city and the neighbouring countryside," he told AFP via Skype.

Nationwide, at least 72 people were killed in violence on Thursday, 44 of them civilians, the Observatory said, adding that a total of 24,495 people had now been killed since the uprising erupted.

 

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