DAMASCUS: Syrian regime airstrikes targeted rebel-held police stations inside the city of Aleppo Friday, ahead of talks between visiting peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and opposition groups regarding the 18-month conflict.
An Agence France Presse correspondent said three loud explosions were heard in Damascus, where Brahimi spent his first night ahead of meetings with the opposition groups tolerated by the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad.
Among groups which the U.N. and Arab League envoy was scheduled to meet is the opposition National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change, which brings together Arab nationalists, Kurds and socialists.
Hasan Abdel-Azim, spokesman for the opposition bloc, said a delegation would meet Brahimi to offer suggestions for a way out of the crisis.
“We support Mr. Brahimi ... and we will cooperate with him because the violence has reached [unprecedented] levels and the Syrian people are suffering from the killings, destruction and displacement,” he told AFP.
Brahimi, who was appointed earlier this month, said Thursday on arrival at Damascus airport that the conflict was getting worse.
“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 former U.N. chief Kofi Annan following the failure of his six-point peace plan, met Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem Thursday night.
Moallem 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.
On the battlefront, Syrian regime forces used fighter jets and helicopter gunships Friday to pound the city and province of Aleppo, where fierce clashes raged around a military airport, monitors said.
Warplanes bombarded the rebel-held towns of Al-Bab and Marea near Aleppo city, said the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, adding that army forces and rebels fought around Minnigh military airport.
In the central Aleppo district of Midan, regime forces conducted airstrikes on two police stations, which 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.
In the Hanano district in the northeast of Aleppo city, airstrikes destroyed another police station in the hands of the rebels, Rahman said.
Despite shelling by regime forces, as seen in videos posted online, residents of Marea, Aleppo and towns across the northern province came out for anti-regime demonstrations after the weekly Muslim prayers, activists said.
Demonstrations were also reported in the provinces of Damascus, Idlib and Deraa in the south. In central Hama, soldiers used explosives against protesters, wounding several people as demonstrators took to the streets, the Observatory said.
“Several people were wounded when the army used explosive devices to target protesters,” the Britain-based watchdog said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the province, demonstrators protested against an anti-Islamic film made in the United States that has sparked violent anti-U.S. rallies in several Arab countries.
In Kafr Zeita, hundreds of people chanting for the fall of President Bashar Assad also shouted slogans denouncing the film that mocks Islam and the Prophet Mohammad.
“There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his Prophet!” cried protesters, according to amateur video posted on YouTube by activists.
“Of course the film has angered many people, but what is interesting is that there was no violence from the protesters,” said one Hama-based activist calling himself Abu Ghazi.
“They protested in a civilized way.”
In the northwestern province of Idlib, protesters in Kfar Nabal, known for their witty signs, carried a drawing of a cleric with “Muslims” written on his robe and the crescent symbol of Islam above his head.
Just south of Damascus, the army fired live ammunition at an anti-regime demonstration in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, 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 Douma, where clashes broke out near the municipal building, the Observatory said.
In Damascus itself, three large explosions were heard in the late morning, according to an AFP reporter. The Observatory said that security forces swept its southern districts of Midan and Nahr Aisha.
At least 18 people were killed Friday, according to an early death toll from the Observatory, with the highest toll in Deraa province where eight civilians, including three children, were killed in airstrikes on the town of Bosra al-Sham.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Assad regime was nearing its “inevitable” end and that his government was holding continuous contacts with the Syrian opposition.
“Assad’s regime is approaching its inevitable end,” Erdogan said in comments translated into Russian at a news conference in the Ukrainian Black Sea resort of Yalta.
“We must say ‘no’ to this human drama and not allow flames to engulf the whole region, so that the transition process could move more quickly ahead,” said the Turkish leader.