Annan receives reply from Syria, but still seeking answers

Assad’s forces turn guns on Deraa, cradle of yearlong revolt.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
March 15, 2012 01:54
4 minute read.
Assad meets UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan

Assad meets Kofi Annan 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout )

Kofi Annan has received a response from Syria over his mediation proposals for ending the country’s violence, but he is still seeking answers to outstanding questions, the UN-Arab League envoy’s spokesman said on Wednesday.

In his letter, the former UN secretary-general, who met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus over the weekend, called for a halt to fighting, humanitarian access and starting a political dialogue with the Syrian opposition, spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

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Annan “has questions and is seeking answers,” Fawzi said. “Given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realize that time is of the essence. As he said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on.”

A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry said Syria had given a positive response to Annan’s proposals.

Annan is due to brief the UN Security Council on Friday about his peace mission to Syria.

Council diplomats say Annan’s assessment of the crisis will be crucial to a bid by the US and its European allies to pass a resolution on Syria. Russia and China have already twice vetoed two such draft resolutions. Negotiations on a draft resolution are expected to accelerate after Annan’s briefing, diplomats said.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said on Wednesday that Beijing was taking no sides in the crisis, and that he was “deeply pained” by the suffering of the Syrian people, though his remarks did not suggest China’s diplomatic position will change. State media said China would offer $2 million in humanitarian aid through the Red Cross. In Washington, British Prime Minister David Cameron said there should be a political solution to the violent upheaval in Syria, and a civil war or revolution is inevitable if Assad continues his crackdown. Cameron’s comments came at a joint news conference with US President Barack Obama following a two-hour meeting on a range of issues, including Syria, Afghanistan and Iran.

Forces loyal to Assad attacked rebel strongholds in various parts of the country on Wednesday, intensifying their assault as the uprising entered its second year with a negotiated solution as far off as ever.

In the southern city of Deraa, cradle of what began a year ago as a peaceful uprising but has gradually evolved into an armed insurgency, opposition activists said government troops had raked buildings with anti-aircraft fire.

There were also reports of a tank bombardment on the village of al-Janoudieh in the northern Idlib region.

Reports from Syria cannot be independently verified as the authorities deny access to rights groups and journalists.

Official Syrian media accused “armed terrorists” of massacring 15 civilians, including young children, in a pro-government district of the central city of Homs, which has been the focal point of much fighting in recent weeks.

The UN says Assad’s forces have killed more than 8,000 people in their drive to crush the uprising. Its refugee agency said on Tuesday that some 230,000 Syrians had fled their homes during the past 12 months, of whom around 30,000 have sought safety abroad.

Amnesty International said in a report that Syrians detained during the uprising had suffered widespread torture that amounted to crimes against humanity.

Diplomats have warned that Syria, riven by sectarian divides, will descend into a Balkansstyle civil war unless a political solution can be found.

Fighting has raged unabated across the country in recent days, with the army appearing to push back the lightly armed rebels.

Following a pattern seen in recent weeks win Homs, it has taken control of much of the northern city of Idlib, striking first with heavy gun fire before launching house-to-house raids, activists said. A stream of refugees crossed into Turkey early on Wednesday, saying they had been warned that their villages in Idlib province would be targeted by the army in the coming hours.

“They are bombing Idlib. They are bombing the city. They have tanks and they have rockets,” said Abdul Samad, one of the refugees waiting for help at a fog-bound border post.

The al-Balad district of Deraa, on the southern border with Jordan, came under attack from around 20 tanks and armored vehicles, activist Rami Abdelhaq said.

“The attack began early this morning. The rebels are firing back, but they are outgunned,” he said. Fighting also broke out in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, in Syria’s Sunni desert heartland.

Wednesday’s reported massacre in Homs took place in an Alawite district. On Sunday, rebels and government traded blame for the murder of up to 50 people in a mixed area of the city. The authorities say rebels have also killed 2,000 soldiers during the months of fighting.

The turmoil, coupled with Western sanctions, has cost Damascus billions of dollars in lost revenue from crude oil sales and tourism receipts.

The Syrian pound has halved in value, foreign investment has dried up and trade has collapsed.

Yet there is no sign of the Assad family and their allies losing their grip on power, or of significant defections from the government or army.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that it would soon deploy human rights monitors in countries bordering Syria to collect eyewitness testimony on atrocities committed in the country.

The Amnesty report said Syria should be referred to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. However, only the UN Security Council can do that, and it remains divided.

“The testimony presented in this report... is yet further evidence that torture and other ill-treatment in Syria form part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population,” Amnesty said.


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