DAMASCUS: A key group in the Syrian opposition National Coalition said Sunday it would not attend proposed peace talks in Geneva and would quit the Coalition if it participated, dealing a potential blow to international efforts to convene a meeting that has been pushed back multiple times.
The Syrian Red Crescent meanwhile said it had evacuated around 1,500 people from a suburb of the capital Damascus that has been under a regime siege for months, and two car bombs exploded in central Damascus, near the state television building.
The SANA news agency says state TV’s headquarters in Umayyad Square was damaged in the late Sunday evening blasts. The reporter said there were no casualties from the blasts, and only that “there were some human remains at the scene, likely those of suicide bombers.”
On Geneva, the president of the Syrian National Council, the biggest member of the opposition Coalition, told AFP that it was impossible to carry out negotiations given the suffering of people on the ground.
“The Syrian National Council, which is the biggest bloc in the Coalition, has taken the firm decision ... not to go to Geneva, under the present circumstances [on the ground],” George Sabra said.
“This means that we will not stay in the Coalition if it goes” to the peace talks, he added.
Western nations and Russia have been pushing the regime and the rebels to meet for talks on a negotiated solution to the 30-month-old conflict, which has killed some 115,000 people.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry flew to London Sunday for talks that would include discussion of the Geneva conference with Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria.
But Sabra said the international community had failed to punish the regime for an Aug. 21 sarin attack on the outskirts of Damascus that reportedly killed hundreds of people.
“The international community has focused on the murder weapon, which is the chemical weapons, and left the murderer unpunished and forgotten the victims,” Sabra said.
“The regional and international context does not give the impression that Geneva II will offer anything to the Syrians,” he added.
“We will not participate in a conference that is intended to hide the failure of international politics.”
Sabra’s statement came as hundreds of civilians, some carried on stretchers, fled a besieged, rebel-held Damascus suburb following a temporary cease-fire in the area, activists and officials said.
The evacuation from Moadamieh, where local activists say at least six people have died of starvation, began Saturday and was still underway Sunday.
It was not immediately clear who brokered the cease-fire between rebels and government forces, a rare case of coordination between opposing forces in Syria’s civil war. “It’s [been] an area of military operations for months, so to see this halt of fire, and to see this exodus of people, means there’s a high level cooperation – not regular cooperation,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Neither Syrian officials nor activists close to rebels would discuss the cease-fire.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Saturday that 2,000 women and children left the suburb for temporary housing in the nearby suburb of Qudsaya.
The humanitarian situation for the thousands trapped in Moadamieh has been deteriorating for months. In a bid to squeeze rebels there, Syrian forces blocked food and supplies from entering the suburb on the western edge of Damascus.
Its residents have been hit hard. Syrian activists of the Moadamieh Media Center reported six people died of starvation in September: two women and four children. One woman described how her 18-month-old daughter lost half her weight as she struggled to nourish her on boiled lentil water.
A Moadamieh Media Center activist, requesting anonymity, estimated some 12,000 people likely remain.
Gunmen kidnapped a team of seven workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross after stopping their convoy early Sunday along a roadside in northern Syria, a spokesman said.
Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC in Damascus, said the abduction took place near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province around 11:30 a.m. as the team was returning to Damascus.
Six of the people kidnapped are ICRC staff workers and one is a volunteer from the Syrian Red Crescent, he said.
Schorno declined to provide the nationalities of the six ICRC employees.
Schorno said the team of seven had been in the field since Oct. 10 to assess the medical situation in the area and to look at how to provide medical aid. He said the part of northern Syria where they were seized “by definition is a difficult area to go in.”
Syrian rebels said they shot a government warplane Sunday near the southern city of Deraa along the border with Jordan but the plane was able to make an emergency landing at a nearby military airport.
They said fighters used anti-aircraft machine guns to hit the plane, the second to have been hit this month in the same border area, which was spotted going down but safely landing in the Thaaleh Airport close to the city of Swaida.
“Our anti-aircraft machine guns shot the plane that had been on reconnaissance flights from the morning,” said Abdullah Masalmah, a rebel fighter from the Tawhid al-Janoub Brigade.
There were no reports of the incident on Syrian state media.
The Observatory said shelling by Syrian regime forces killed at least 11 people, including women and children, in the city of Deraa. The Local Coordination Committees said Saturday’s death toll stood at 106 people, with 28 people killed in Damascus and surrounding areas, 23 in Aleppo province and 22 in Deraa province.