Syria denies vice president defection


Syria denied reports today that president Bashar al-Assad's deputy had defectedand his forces pressed an offensive against rebels, bombarding parts of Aleppo in the north and hitting an insurgent-held town in the oil-producing east.

Vice-president Farouq al-Shara "never thought for a moment about leaving the country", said a statement from his office broadcast on state television issued in response to reports that the veteran Baath Party loyalist had tried to defect to Jordan.

A cousin of Mr Shara's announced his defection on Thursday, calling on the army to join the "revolution" against Mr Assad.

But state media said the vice president had been working since the start of the uprising to reach a political solution to end the bloodshed. Mr Shara welcomed the appointment of veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new international mediator for Syria, it added.

"Farouq al-Shara has never thought for a moment about leaving the country," Syrian television quoted a statement from Mr Shara's office as saying.

Mr Shara, appointed six years ago after the defection of Abdul-Halim Khaddam, is a Sunni Muslim from the southern Deraa province where the 17-month-old uprising against Mr Assad first erupted.

The 73-year-old former foreign minister kept a low profile as the rebellion against Mr Assad escalated, but appeared in public last month at a state funeral for three of Mr Assad's top security officials killed in a bomb attack in Damascus.

The statement said he had worked since the start of the uprising to find a political solution to end the bloodshed and welcomed the appointment of veteran Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi as a new international mediator for Syria.

Mr Brahimi, who hesitated for days to accept a job that France's UN envoy Gerard Araud called an "impossible mission," will replace former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, who is stepping down at the end of the month.

Mr Annan's six-point plan to end the violence and move towards political negotiations was based on an April ceasefire agreement which never took hold. The conflict has deepened since then with both sides stepping up attacks.

Mr Assad's forces have turned increasingly to air power to hold back lightly armed rebels in the capital Damascus and Aleppo, a northern commercial hub. More than 18,000 people have died and some 170,000 have fled the country as a result of the fighting, according to the United Nations.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the army bombarded neighbourhoods in Aleppo, Syria's largest city. Rebels hold several districts in the country's northern commercial hub and have tried to push back an army counter-offensive.

State television said soldiers "cleared terrorists and mercenaries" - terms used by authorities to describe Assad's armed opponents - from the western district of Saif al-Dawla, where some of the heaviest fighting has taken place.

Internet footage which activists said was filmed in Saif al-Dawla today showed a plane making a low pass over buildings and dropping two bombs.

The Observatory also said at least 20 armoured vehicles moved into the eastern town of Mayadeen in Deir al-Zor province, where Syria's 200,000 barrels per day of oil are produced.

In the town of Tel, north of Damascus, local activists said the bodies of 40 people killed in bombardment were gathered together for a joint burial. A picture showed what appeared to be several corpses wrapped in colourful blankets on a street.

Russia is reported to have rejected the idea of a no-fly zone over Syria.

No member of the United Nations Security Council has formally proposed a no-fly zone, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on August 11th that Washington and Turkey were looking at all measures to help Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Mr Assad, including a no-fly zone.

However, Sky News Arabia said on its website today that foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russia were firmly opposed to such an idea.

"Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov asserted that his country rejects the imposition of any no-fly zone on Syria," the website said. "This will be a violation of sovereignty if it included Syrian territory," it said in Arabic, quoting Mr Lavrov.

No-fly zones imposed by Nato and Arab allies helped Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gadafy last year.

Ms Clinton's earlier remarks were the closest Washington has come to suggesting direct military intervention in Syria. But her suggestion that a no-fly zone might be an option has gained little traction so far.

Days after her comments, US defence secretary Leon Panetta said a no-fly zone over Syria was not a "front-burner" issue, while Turkish newspapers quoted the US ambassador to Ankara as saying there were serious legal and practical obstacles to such an idea.

Mr Lavrov also said the key to a solution in Syria was the Geneva accord, which calls for the creation of a national unity government in Syria.

International powers agreed in June that such a government should be set up in Syria to resolve the conflict between Mr Assad and opposition forces trying to oust him.