Syrian troops kill dozens of civilians as UN talks go on
Syrian troops bombarded a suburb of Damascus with tank and artillery shells yesterday, killing dozens of people during a bloody few days across the country, activists said.
The apparent escalation in violence came as the five permanent members of the United Nation security council – the United Kingdom, the United States, China, France and Russia, – meet today to try and agree a political transition plan for the country, which has been convulsed by more than 15 months of violence.
Two opposition groups reported the deaths of more than 125 civilians in fighting across the country on Thursday alone.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that figure included more than 60 soldiers. If confirmed, it would be one of the highest death tolls on a single day since the start of the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad in March 2011.
Activists said at least 43 people were killed in more than two days of shelling in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which has been a hotbed of dissent and has put up strong resistance to the Assad regime. The dead included three children and five members of a single family.
A local activist said the attack was “relentless” throughout Thursday, and exploding shells killed people in their homes.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, added: “They [government troops] are trying to bring Douma under control, but they are being met by fierce resistance.” He said most of the dead were civilians.
The violence around the capital’s suburbs mirrored fighting across many parts of Syria that killed dozens of other people, according to the activist groups.
The latest carnage came as world powers show new urgency to resolve the crisis, which so far has resisted international efforts. Officials from key players gathered yesterday in a meeting in Geneva intended to lay the groundwork for ministerial crisis talks today.
However, diplomatic sources said they failed to overcome differences on a transition plan put forward by mediator Kofi Annan, with Russia the main holdout.
After the Geneva meeting, one Arab diplomat said: “If there is no agreement [between international leaders], Bashar al-Assad will know he had every possible opportunity to fly his planes and burn towns and the international community will do nothing.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov were also due to meet in St Petersburg last night in an attempt to iron out differences over the transition plan being pushed by Mr Annan, the UN envoy to Syria.
His plan calls for the formation of a national unity government that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution, and the holding of elections.
Some powers are adamant that the plan will not allow Mr Assad to remain in power at the top of the transitional government, but Russia insists that outsiders cannot dictate the ultimate solution or the composition of the interim administration.
Mr Annan laid out his expectations for this weekend’s conference in an article in US newspaper the Washington Post.
The future government in Syria, he said, “must include a government of national unity that would exercise full executive powers. This government could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation would be excluded.”
Such a proposal does not explicitly bar Mr Assad, but Western powers who will participate in the conference said that is implicit.
Russia is Syria’s most important ally. Diplomatic hopes have rested on persuading Russia to agree to a plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
There are few options besides keeping up diplomatic pressure, as an international military intervention is all but ruled out in the near future. Few countries are willing to get deeply involved in such an explosive conflict, and Russia and China have pledged to veto any international attempt to intervene.
Russia said it regretted that Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Lebanon were not invited to the meeting on Syria in Geneva.
But a statement described the meeting as a positive move and hoped mechanisms would be agreed on a ceasefire and the withdrawal of troops and rebel forces from cities which could create a “favourable atmosphere” for a political transition.
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