Mediator seeks Syria ceasefire
International mediator Lakhdar Brahimi met Syria's foreign minister Walid al-Moualem in Damascus today, pressing for a brief ceasefire between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebels seeking his overthrow.
Mr Brahimi has called for a ceasefire during next week's Islamic Eid al-Adha 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 yesterday.
There were no immediate details on the talks but Syria has so far given a guarded response to Brahimi's proposal, suggesting it wants guarantees that rebels would reciprocate any move by Dr Assad's forces.
Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League special envoy for the Syria crisis, has been criss-crossing the region with the aim of convincing Dr 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 Dr Assad's major backers, has also supported the call but added that the main problem in Syria was foreign interference.
The United States, which has been a vocal critic of Dr Assad but has little apparent influence on the ground, threw its weight behind the ceasefire call yesterday.
"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.
The violence has spread across Syria's frontiers. Dr Assad's forces exchanged cross-border artillery fire with Turkey several times this month and yesterday 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.
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.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported heavy clashes on the main north-south highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo today. The highway town of Maarat al-Numan and villages around it in Idlib were shelled, as a part of a several-day campaign after rebels took it a week ago.
The United States has repeatedly said it believes Dr Assad must step down to allow for a political transition in Syria, and blamed Russia and China for blocking moves at the UN 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.