Syria envoy presses Damascus for ceasefire
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus on Saturday, pressing for a brief ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
Brahimi has called for a ceasefire during next week's Islamic Eid al-Adha holiday to stem the bloodshed in a 19-month-old conflict which activists say has killed at least 30,000 people and claimed the lives of 220 more on Friday.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said the talks were "constructive and serious" and that Brahimi and Moualem discussed "objective and realistic ways of halting the violence by either side, to prepare the ground for comprehensive dialogue between Syrians".
It added that dialogue, rather than foreign intervention, was the only way to resolve the crisis.
Syria has so far given a guarded response to Brahimi's ceasefire proposal, suggesting it wants guarantees that rebels would reciprocate any move by Assad's forces.
Brahimi, the joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy for the Syria crisis, has been criss-crossing the region with the aim of convincing Assad's main backers and his foes to support the idea of a truce during the holiday, which starts at dusk on Thursday.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has called for all sides to observe the three or four-day ceasefire. Iran, one of Assad's major backers, has also supported the call but added that the main problem in Syria was foreign interference, such as arming the rebels.
The United States, which has been a vocal critic of Assad but has little apparent influence on the ground, threw its weight behind the ceasefire call on Friday.
"We urge the Syrian government to stop all military operations and call on opposition forces to follow suit," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland 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.
VIOLENCE CROSSING FRONTIERS
The violence has spread across Syria's frontiers. Assad's forces exchanged cross-border artillery fire with Turkey several times this month and on Friday a huge car bomb in Beirut killed a top intelligence official whose investigations had implicated Syria in trying to stoke violence on Lebanese soil.
Syria's Information Minister Omran Zoabi condemned the bombing. "We condemn this terrorist explosion and all these explosions wherever they happen. Nothing justifies them," he told reporters on Friday.
Next week's truce would be self-imposed, with no international observers, and there has been no sign of a reduction in violence ahead of the Eid holiday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes on the main north-south highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo on Saturday. The highway town of Maarat al-Numan and villages around it in Idlib were shelled, after rebels took the area a week ago.
It said a reported 60 people had been killed in Syria by nightfall on Saturday.
The United States has repeatedly said it believes Assad must step down to allow for a political transition in Syria, and blamed Russia and China for blocking moves at the U.N. Security Council aimed at increasing pressure on his government.
Russia and China, joined by Iran, say they are opposed to foreign intervention in Syria and accuse Western powers of working with Arab allies in the Gulf to support Syria's armed opposition in a conflict that appears to be heading toward a sectarian proxy war.
Turkey's Davutoglou, speaking in Sanaa on Saturday, said Yemen's power transfer deal which allowed President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down was no longer a suitable model for Syria.
"The Yemen solution was suitable for Syria nine months ago," he said. "But now, because every country has its own special circumstances and due to the latest developments on the Syrian arena which saw the use of artillery and the air force in bombarding Syrian cities, this has narrowed the room for implementing such solutions."
(Writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Andrew Roche)
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