Change of guard at UN as battle for Syria goes on


AS PROTESTERS took to the streets in Hama and Damascus to call for his removal, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad attended prayers yesterday to mark Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends the fasting month of Ramadan.

He was accompanied by prime minister Wael al-Halki and foreign minister Walid al-Moualem during the service in a small mosque near the presidential palace.

Vice-president Farouq al-Shara was not present. Claims by the rebel Free Syrian Army that he had defected or was under house arrest after trying to defect were denied.

Mr Shara’s office put out a statement saying he had “never thought for a moment about leaving the country”. Last summer he attempted to launch dialogue between the government and domestic opposition groups and, according to Abdel Aziz al-Kheir, a leading figure in the National Co-ordination Board, is regarded as a potential transitional executive if President Assad leaves power.

Mr Shara’s cousin, an intelligence official, bolted last week.

Ahead of the departure of UN monitors, mission head Lt Gen Babacar Gaye said they had arrived in Syria on April 21st to oversee the ceasefire, which was initially respected, and his teams were able to operate throughout the country. However, by mid-June, “ . . . it was clear that the parties were no longer committed to the ceasefire and the result has been an escalation in violence.”

He pledged that the UN would not leave Syria and would continue to press for dialogue.

The monitors are due to be replaced by a 20-30 strong team of human rights experts and political staff. UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who steps down at the end of the month, will be succeeded by former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi.

Mr Brahimi has already drawn fire from the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council for saying it is too early to determine whether Dr Assad should resign.

He also said divisions in the UN Security Council had to be resolved so he would have the required support for his mission to end the bloodshed and start dialogue between the parties. He is to hold consultations in at UN headquarters in New York and the Arab League in Cairo in coming days.

“The situation in Syria is dire . . . absolutely terrible,” he said. “I could not refuse [to take the job] in a situation like this where hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, of people are suffering.”

Mr Annan had repeatedly complained that rifts within the council had prevented implementation of his peace plan.

The UN estimates that more than 18,000 people have died in the 17-month conflict and 170,000 refugees have registered with the UN.

The opposition Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 190 Syrians were slain on Saturday. Other reports put the daily toll at 99. In al-Tal, a town just north of Damascus, 40 bodies of people said to have been killed during army bombardment were reportedly given a common burial.

Fighting continued around Aleppo’s civilian airport and districts adjoining Salahuddin, retaken by the army last week.

Although the West has not yet become militarily involved in the conflict, London’s Sunday Times has revealed that intelligence operatives based in Cyprus have been providing Syrian rebels with information to aid their struggle against Damascus.

Also, German newspaper Bild reported that Germany’s intelligence service (BND) personnel on ships off the coast of Syria are also supplying the rebels with information on government troop movements.

“We can be proud of the . . . contribution we are making to the fall of the Assad regime,” a BND officer told Bild.

The US and Turkey have also been providing logistical support to the rebels.