Syrian warplanes pounded a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border yesterday as opposition leaders in Geneva called on Russia to put pressure on the government to prevent the faltering peace negotiations from collapsing.
A second round of talks that started in Geneva on Monday is mired in acrimony as government and opposition delegates hurled accusations back and forth, unable to agree on a common agenda.
The UN said that a meeting between senior US and Russian officials – who are backing the process – with UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will be held in Geneva today, a day before it was originally planned.
The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground in Syria. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 4,959 people have died in Syria in the three-week period since 22 January, when the first round of talks began in Switzerland.
The group, which documents the fighting on the ground through a wide network of activists, said the period has seen the highest death toll since the uprising against president Bashar al-Assad started in March 2011.
It called for the talks in Geneva to be suspended if they do not produce an immediate end to all military operations.
Troops yesterday pounded Yabroud, which is the last rebel stronghold in Syria’s mountainous Qalamoun region. Backed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on an offensive there since early December.
Activists reported heavy fighting in the area between troops loyal to Mr Assad and rebels trying to overthrow him.
In Lebanon, preparations were under way to receive more Syrians fleeing the area. In the border area of Wadi Hmaied several trucks and buses were seen packed with people, clothes and other belongings crossing into the country.
They were heading for the refugee settlements in and around the Lebanese town of Arsal to find shelter, but were turned back by other refugees saying there was no space to accommodate new arrivals.
Some erected tents in the fields to spend the night there. As night fell, many were seen putting children to sleep in the back of trucks parked on the side of a road.
“There was shelling, with planes and tanks since this morning,” said one refugee, who spoke on condition only his first name, Ahmed, be used, for fear of harassment. He drove to Lebanon in a truck along with his mother, his wife and their four children. He said they fled from the village of Sahel, near Yabroud. As they drove away, Ahmed said he had seen the bodies of five people killed in the shelling.
A senior official in Arsal said up to 300 Syrians have crossed into Lebanon over the past 48 hours.
The town of Yabroud, which is near the Lebanese border, has been controlled by the opposition for much of Syria’s nearly three-year conflict.
Lebanese Sunni Muslims have moved through the town to join Syrian rebels in battles against Mr Assad’s forces, bringing in weapons and supplies for opposition fighters from across the border in Arsal. Hezbollah fighters have been key to the Syrian army’s success in the border region.
In Geneva, the opposition urged Russia, a key ally of Mr Assad, to take a more forceful stand with the Syrian government.
Russian deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov met Mr Brahimi yesterday, before Brahimi brought the Syrian sides into talks for another unfruitful session.
“I do hope that the Russians will put enough pressure on the regime delegation to be flexible,” said Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the opposition negotiating team.