Middle East

Iran's Salehi meets embattled Syrian president

A supporter of Lebanon's Hezbollah group holds pictures of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (L), Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) and slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughnieh (bottom-C) during a rally in southern Beirut to denounce a film mocking Islam on September 17, 2012. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, who made a rare public appearance at the rally, has called for a week of protests across the country over the low-budget, US-made film, describing it as the "worst attack ever on Islam."

DAMASCUS: Iran's foreign minister met embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday, calling for a Syrian solution to the civil war, as a rights watchdog accused Damascus of waging "relentless, indiscriminate" attacks against its own people.

Speaking on arriving in Damascus, Ali Akbar Salehi said a solution to the 18-month conflict lies "only in Syria and within the Syrian family."

Salehi, who called this week for a simultaneous halt to the fighting by both regime and rebel forces, added this should be done in "partnership with international and regional organisations."

Following their meeting, Assad said the war engulfing Syria was targeting not only it but the "axis of resistance," a term Syria, Iran and Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah use to refer to their common opposition to Israel.

He also said "Syria has shown openness in dealing with all initiatives put forward to find a solution to the crisis. The key to any initiative's success is the sincerity of the intentions behind it."

Salehi said the country was "facing a problem, and we hope that this problem can be solved as soon as possible."

He also said "Syria has very strong, solid ties with Iran, especially at the political level," and that he would discuss the conflict with Syrian officials.

Salehi's call for an end to fighting came at a meeting in Cairo on Monday of the Syria "contact group," to which Iran, as well as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey belong.

Tehran, a staunch ally of the regime in Damascus, is also proposing the four countries dispatch observers to Syria in an effort to quell the violence.

Last month, the United Nations withdrew its own observers after both sides failed to respect an April ceasefire to which they had committed themselves.

In a statement, Amnesty International said "civilians, many of them children, are the main victims of a campaign of relentless and indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army."

It said it had new evidence "of a pattern which has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory -- with disastrous consequences for the civilian population."

And the former head of Syria's chemical arsenal, Major General Adnan Sillu, was quoted by British newspaper The Times as saying he believed the regime would eventually use those weapons against civilians.

The Times quoted defected Major General Sillu as saying he had been involved in "serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas."

Sillu said he defected three months ago after being party to the top-level talks about the use of chemical weapons against both rebels and civilians, which he said he was convinced the regime would eventually do.

'Disaster areas' in Damascus

Meanwhile, rebels withdrew from three southern districts of Damascus after weeks of heavy combat and shelling, while the army bombarded districts oF the city and adjacent areas, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said the army later stormed one of the districts from which the rebels had withdrawn, setting fire to homes.

The bodies of 11 people were found in the Jobar district of Damascus, some of them belonging to people who had been detained by security forces, the Observatory added.

A network of activists, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), described as "disaster areas" the Al-Hajar al-Aswad, Qadam and Assali districts, and the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp.

"Since July 15, these neighbourhoods have suffered fierce army assaults, as well as indiscriminate shelling targeting civilian homes and shops," it said.

The SRGC accused the regime of "carrying out a series of summary executions" in the south of the capital, adding that at least 200 people have been killed in the afflicted districts since the outbreak of violence there mid-summer.

It appealed to international agencies to "help the residents of these disaster areas."

The Observatory said dozens of people were killed or wounded in shelling in Sahl al-Ghab in the central province of Hama.

Amateur video posted on YouTube showed several bodies wrapped in white sheets stretched out on the floor of a house.

"They died when the army pounded the village with helicopters," said the unidentified cameraman. "God is greater than you, O Bashar (al-Assad)."

And regime forces killed a woman at her home in the coastal city of Latakia when she tried to stop them from arresting her son, the Observatory said.

In Aleppo, where the two-month-old battle for control of the commercial capital remains fluid, the army said rebels attacked several military positions in the east overnight and that helicopter gunships eventually drove them off.

They also again assaulted the local headquarters of the feared air force intelligence agency, but without success.

The Observatory said there was shelling in several eastern districts of the city.

In other developments, rebels gained control of a border crossing on the Turkish frontier after clashes with government troops, a Turkish official told AFP.

The Observatory said 43 people had been killed nationwide so far on Wednesday, including 30 civilians, after 173 died the previous day.

It says more than 27,000 people have died since the uprising erupted in March 2011, while the United Nations puts the figure at more than 20,000.





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