Both Syrian sides intensifying violence: U.N. monitor

MOSCOW/BEIRUT Fri Jun 15, 2012 6:38pm EDT

1 of 11. Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Kafranbel, near Idlib, June 15, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Shaam News Network/Handout

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MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) - Both rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are intensifying violence in Syria and striving for military gains rather than peaceful transition, the chief U.N. monitor in Syria, Major-General Robert Mood, said on Friday.

Russia dug in further against Western pressure to discuss a post-Assad Syria, and France's foreign minister said Paris was considering whether to equip rebels with communications equipment to encourage a "stronger revolt".

At least 34 people were killed in Syria on Friday, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of them by Assad's forces. The group, which has a network of activists across Syria, said the death toll included at least six members of Assad's forces who were killed in clashes with rebels.

"Violence over the past 10 days has been intensified, again willingly by both parties, with losses on both sides and at significant risk to our observers," Mood told reporters in Damascus.

"There appears to be a lack of willingness to see a peaceful transition. Instead there is a push towards advancing military positions."

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said discussions regarding a political transformation in Syria after Assad "are not being held and cannot be held, because to decide for the Syrian people contradicts our position completely".

"We do not get involved in overthrowing regimes - neither through approval of unilateral actions by the U.N. Security Council nor by participation in any political plots," he said.

His comments were a response to a remark by U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland suggesting Washington and Moscow were discussing a post-Assad strategy in Syria.

Russia's Foreign Ministry also rebutted accusations by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that Russia was sending attack helicopters to Syria. It said Moscow had made no new deliveries, but had at some point carried out "previously planned repairs of (helicopters), which were delivered to Syria many years ago".

WORLD DIVIDED

World powers are deeply divided over Syria, with Russia and China - both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and holding vetoes - blocking efforts by Western powers to condemn Assad or call for his removal after 15 months of bloodshed.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said his country still supported the UN-backed peace plan brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan.

"But we are also considering - and the Americans have done this - not giving weapons but providing communications equipment so that a stronger revolt develops among the population," said Fabius.

His spokesman appeared to play down the comments, saying it was important for Syrians to have communications tools so they could be warned if tanks were heading toward their cities, but adding no decision had been taken yet.

Violence has surged in recent weeks after government forces and allied militia launched offensives to regain territories controlled by the opposition, and rebels abandoned a ceasefire negotiated by international envoy Kofi Annan.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul said his worst fears were being realized in Syria.

"Our biggest fear was to reach this point that we are in today, it is almost at a state of civil war. We did what we could, unfortunately the situation is worse," he said on Turkish-language channel CNNTurk.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Assad's forces of using rape and other sexual violence against men, women and children, citing interviews with victims.

"The assaults are not limited to detention facilities - government forces and pro-government shabiha militia members have also sexually assaulted women and girls during home raids and residential sweeps," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at HRW.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was striving to alleviate growing suffering.

"More and more people are in need of help," said Alexandre Equey, deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. "In some areas, people are unable to get out, and help cannot get in.

Heavy clashes were reported across Syria on Friday. Opposition activists said they would hold peaceful protests. In amateur video footage posted on the Internet, demonstrators held signs saying: "Russia: enemy number one for the Syrian people."

(Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Seda Sezer in Istanbul; Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Andrew Roche and Ralph Gowling)

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