BEIRUT

Middle East

Battle rages in Aleppo as Russia urges Syria unity

Sept 7, 2012, a rebel Free Syrian Army soldier runs after attacking a tank with his RPG during fighting in Izaa district in Aleppo, Syria. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

ALEPPO: Fighting for control of a key army base in Aleppo raged Saturday, as Russia tried to revive a divisive accord on ending the bloodshed that calls for a government of unity in Syria.

As peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi prepared to visit Damascus in a new bid to end the bloodshed, the EU foreign ministers meeting in Cyprus upped the pressure saying they agreed on the need to beef up sanctions on the Syrian regime.

On the ground, the army claimed a victory against rebels in the northern city of Aleppo, pushing them back from the Hanano army base backed by tanks and helicopters, after a 20-hour battle, military sources and witnesses said.

"There are a lot of victims on both sides," a witness told AFP.

A military official said soldiers destroyed six armored vehicles the rebels were using to transport arms seized from the barracks -- a compound that serves mainly as a weapons depot and as a recruitment centre.

The fighters on Friday claimed to have captured parts of the barracks. "The rebels had thrown themselves whole-heartedly into this offensive because they desperately need weapons," an army official told AFP.

Badly outgunned members of the Free Syrian Army had taken part in the offensive, a rebel commander who identified himself as Abu Omar told AFP on Friday.

The goal was to liberate Hanano, cut off strategic supply lines and put a stop to shelling that has caused high civilian casualties in Aleppo.

FSA media coordinator Abdullah Yasser said the assault aimed to take down one of three main positions the army uses to shell rebels concentrated in the city's east.

"Hanano is one of the main places from which they are shooting, so taking it over could be a turning point for us," he told AFP.

On Friday alone at least 18 soldiers and four rebels were killed in the battle for control of Hanano base, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In all at least 136 people were killed across Syrian on Friday -- 73 civilians, 38 soldiers and 25 rebel fighters -- the Britain-based watchdog said.

It also reported shelling on areas of Damascus, in the southern province of Daraa, and clashes around a military airport in Albu Kamal in the east.

The fighting also spilled over the border into Iraq early on Saturday, when mortars crashed into the border town of Al-Qaim which lies across from Albu Kamal.

Iraqi army Captain Ali Juwayir said two of the rounds hit two homes in the town killing a four-year-old girl and wounding four people.

On the political front Russia said Saturday it would ask the U.N. Security Council to endorse a plan to end the raging violence in Syria, but the United States insisted any resolution had to carry teeth.

Russia has been the main diplomatic and military supporter of Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad and has angered Western nations by vetoing along with China three attempts at the Security Council to exert more pressure.

"There is a plan to hold a special meeting of the U.N. Security Council with the participation of ministers on the Syrian issue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Vladivostok.

"We stressed in a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State that Russia will push for the Security Council's approval of the Geneva communique."

But Clinton said she was open to another attempt at the Security Council based on the Geneva plan but insisted on a resolution to carry consequences if Assad did not comply, a senior US official said.

She told Lavrov that "in the context of the escalating violence, we have got to do more, if we can, in the Security Council to send a strong message", the official quoted her as saying.

On June 30, world powers agreed on a plan calling for all sides in Syria to implement a ceasefire and then to form a transitional government and review the constitution.

But the plan did not make an explicit call for Assad to quit -- a demand championed by the United States, Britain, France and Arab states including Saudi Arabia and Qatar who have also been clamoring for tougher sanctions on Syria.

EU foreign ministers on Saturday agreed at informal talks in Cyprus that tougher punitive measures should be adopted, said Cypriot Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis.

"There is consensus also on the increase of sanctions in Syria," she said.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said details on the new measures would be worked out by the office of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Spain's Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia Margallo said "there is a general feeling that more pressure must be placed on the regime in order to end the violence and enable the distribution of humanitarian aid throughout the country."

Brahimi, who heads to Cairo for talks with Arab League leaders on Sunday, has said it is up to the Syrians to decide their future -- echoing the position of his predecessor Kofi Annan.

His spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the peace envoy is working on "the final details of a plan to visit Damascus."

U.N. diplomats say Brahimi wants to secure guarantees that he will get a proper meeting with Assad before going.

On Friday, Brussels announced an extra 50 million euros ($63 million) for civilians trapped in the conflict, while the United Nations almost doubled its humanitarian appeal for Syria to $347 million.

The U.N. says about 20,000 people have died in the conflict which erupted in mid-March 2011. The Observatory says more than 26,000 have been killed -- the vast majority civilians.

 

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