BEIRUT

Middle East

Syria undecided on ceasefire proposal, rebels divided

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem addresses a press conference in Damascus on December 19, 2011. AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA

BEIRUT/CAIRO: Syria said on Wednesday its military command was still studying a proposal for a holiday ceasefire with rebels - contradicting international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi's announcement that Damascus had agreed to a truce.

The statement threw Brahimi's efforts to arrange a pause in the bloodshed in Syria into even more confusion, as divided rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad gave mixed messages.

The prominent Farooq Brigade, which operates out of the battered city of Homs, said it would cease fire. The Islamist militant Al Nusra Front rejected the truce, saying it is not a group "who accepts to play such dirty games."

A previous ceasefire arrangement in April collapsed within days, with both sides accusing the other of breaking it.

Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy, had crisscrossed the Middle East to push the warring factions and their international backers to agree to a truce during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha - a mission that included talks with Assad in Damascus at the weekend.

"After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a ceasefire during the Eid," Brahimi told a news conference at the Arab League in Cairo.

Within an hour, Syria's Foreign Ministry said the proposal was still being studied by the military commanders. "The final position on this issue will be announced tomorrow," a ministry statement said. Brahimi later told the United Nations Security Council that Assad himself accepted the truce.

The holiday starts on Thursday and lasts three or four days. Brahimi did not specify the precise time period for a truce.

Nor did the initiative include plans for international observers, and rebel sources had earlier told Reuters there was little point if it could not be monitored or enforced.

Assad's forces and rebels are now locked in a battle with huge potential ramifications in the northwest.

Syrian warplanes carried out bombing raids on Wednesday on the strategic northern town of Maarat al-Numan and nearby villages while rebels surrounded an army base to its east, an activist monitor said.

Five people from one family, including a child and a woman, were killed in the air strikes, according to Rami Abdelrahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Maarat al-Numan has fallen to the rebels, effectively cutting the main north-south highway, a strategic route for Assad to move troops from the capital Damascus to Aleppo, Syria's largest city where the insurgents have taken a foothold.

But without control of the nearby Wadi al-Daif military base, their grip over the road is tenuous and the rebels say the ferocity of counter-attacks by government forces shows how important holding the base is to Assad's military strategy.

More than 32,000 people have been killed in the conflict, which began with peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations in March 2011 and then mushroomed into civil war as repression increased.

On Wednesday, opposition activists and Syrian state media traded blame for the killing of at least 25 people, including women and children, in the town of Douma near Damascus.

"People now are scared and very angry. Some of the martyrs were killed with knives, others were shot," Mahmoud Doumany, an activist living in Douma, told Reuters.

Syrian state television said 25 people had been killed by "terrorist members of the so-called 'Liwa al-Islam.'"

Opposition video showed the bodies of women and children, one of whom had a hole in his head.

"God is great," said a man off screen, his voice trembling as he walked around the house, filming bodies on several floors of a residential building.

Hundreds of Syrian refugees have poured into a makeshift refugee camp at Atimah overlooking the Turkish border, fleeing a week of what they said were the most intense army bombardments since the uprising began.

"Some of the bombs were so big they sucked in the air and everything crashes down, even four-storey buildings. We used to have one or two rockets a day, now for the past 10 days it has become constant, we run from one shelter to another. They drop a few bombs and it's like a massacre," one refugee, a 20-year-old named Nabil, told Reuters at the camp.

The army relies on air power and heavy artillery to push back the rebels.

Human Rights Watch said the Syrian air force had increased its use of cluster bombs across the country in the past two weeks. The New York-based organisation identified, through activist video footage of unexploded bomblets, three types of cluster bombs which had fallen on and around Maarat al-Numan.

Cluster bombs explode in the air, scattering dozens of smaller bomblets over an area the size of a sports field. Most nations have banned their use under a convention that became international law in 2010, but which Syria has not signed.

In contrast to the Libya crisis last year, the West has shown little appetite to arm the Syrian rebels, worried that weapons would fall into the hands of Islamic militants.

Russia, which has backed Assad through the conflict, sold his government $1 billion worth of weapons last year and has made clear it would oppose an arms embargo in the U.N. Security Council.

 

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