Peace envoy to visit Syria to work out Eid ceasefire

AMMAN Thu Oct 18, 2012 12:20pm EDT

1 of 15. Free Syrian Army fighters take position in Aleppo's Bustan al-Basha district October 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Zain Karam

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AMMAN (Reuters) - The international mediator on Syria will go to Damascus in the next few days to try to broker a brief ceasefire in the war between President Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels during the Islamic Eid al-Adha festival.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, told reporters on Thursday after meeting Jordan's foreign minister that a respite in hostilities could build confidence and help bring about a longer truce in the 19-month-old conflict.

"Yes I am going to Syria. This appeal we made to our Syrian brothers, whether in the government or against the government, to stop fighting in the three or four days of the Eid next week," Brahimi said.

A previous ceasefire in April collapsed after just a few days, with each side blaming the other. Mediator Kofi Annan resigned his post in frustration a few months later.

Since then the war pitting Assad's troops against a loosely-organized rebel force trying to end his 12-year-old rule has intensified. The daily death toll routinely tops 100 combatants and civilians and fighting rages in cities including Aleppo, the country's commercial centre, and the capital Damascus.

The truce would be self-imposed with no monitoring.

"This is an appeal to the Syrians themselves that they stop fighting and observe it themselves. This is not the political process or the solution required to the Syrian crisis," Brahimi said.

The Syrian government guardedly welcomed the proposal but said any initiative must be respected by both sides. Turkey, one of Assad's harshest critics, and Iran, one of his strongest allies, both backed the plan, in rare display of agreement.

Brahimi will meet Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Saturday, an official in Damascus said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said Damascus hoped Brahimi's talks in the region, including with countries which back the rebels, could herald "something which leads to the success of a constructive initiative".

Brahimi's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said the envoy, a veteran Algerian diplomat, was working on a new, comprehensive peace plan.

"It's difficult to put a timeline on it but it's all coming together. He has completed the circle with this tour of neighboring countries. He needs to go now to the outer circle, to Moscow and China, and look them in the eye and say this will not work unless you support it," Fawzi said.

Russia, which sold Syria arms worth $1 billion last year, and China have vetoed three resolutions favored by Western powers condemning Syrian authorities and opening the way to U.N. sanctions on Damascus.

The Kremlin denies trying to prop up Assad, who allows Russia to maintain a naval supply facility in the port of Tartus that is its only military base outside the former Soviet Union.

Moscow says Syria's crisis must be resolved without foreign interference, particularly military intervention.

The Syrian government, which portrays the war as aggression by terrorists instigated by its international enemies, said on Thursday it had written to the United Nations to protest about foreign support for the opposition.

"Evidence on involvement of foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, in supporting and arming the terrorist groups in Syria has recently increased," the foreign ministry said in a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council.

GUNS IN DAMASCUS

Violence wracked the country on Thursday, from the eastern desert city of Hassake, where five soldiers were killed when rebels ambushed a military truck, to Damascus, where government forces were bombarding outlying suburbs.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of people were wounded when warplanes bombed the northern town of Maarat al-Numan, which straddles the main north-south highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo and was captured by rebels last week.

The official SANA news agency said troops were "cleaning villages" in the countryside around Maarat, killing and wounding many rebels. Government forces have been making a strong push to retake Maarat, including using air strikes.

In an extensive report on fighting across Syria, SANA said a large number of insurgents had been killed in attacks in several districts of Aleppo and elsewhere. The Observatory also reported clashes in Aleppo.

Insurgents had blown up a gas pipeline from Deir Ezzor to Palmyra in the central Syrian desert and an oil pipeline from al-Omar field to Atteim field in north of Deir Ezzor on Thursday, SANA said.

More than 140 Syrians were killed on Wednesday, including 62 unarmed civilians, 12 of them children, the Observatory said.

Syrian officials have questioned whether the rebels, who agreed on a joint leadership on Tuesday to encourage supporters to provide them with more powerful weapons, could commit to or honor any ceasefire deal.

But Brahimi said on Wednesday opposition figures had told him any ceasefire by Assad's forces would be reciprocated immediately.

"We heard from everyone we met in the opposition, and everyone (else) we met that, if the government stops using violence, 'We will respond to this directly'," he said.

"We hope this will be a very small step that would save the Syrian people ... because they are burying hundreds of people every day."

The total death toll now stands at more than 30,000 and international players fear that if unchecked, the war could expand into a wider regional conflict between Sunni powers sympathetic to the rebels and Shi'ites who back Assad.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman and Oliver Holmes in Beirut; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

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