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Pentagon once backed arming rebels

Syrian battles rage as states urge talks

AFP-JIJI

Troops overran a rebel town and were locked in a second day of fierce clashes around Damascus on Thursday, and Islamic states urged Syria’s regime and its foes to hold “serious” talks to end the bloodshed.

Opposition leader Ahmed Mouaz al-Khatib has offered to hold peace talks with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, but Damascus has so far ignored the initiative and intensified attacks on rebel bastions.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, meanwhile, admitted for the first time that the Pentagon had backed proposals to arm the rebels, but the White House rejected the idea on fears of the risks involved, the New York Times reported.

After a 16-day onslaught, proregime troops retook Karnaz on the strategic Damascus-Aleppo highway, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The outgunned rebel “fighters withdrew from Karnaz, which they seized in December last year, after heavy fighting and regular forces regained control,” he said

Clashes and heavy shelling rocked rebel strongholds around Damascus on the second day of an army offensive that the observatory said killed at least 64 people Wednesday.

Mortar rounds killed six civilians in the northeastern district of Qaboon, among at least 92 people who died in nationwide violence Thursday, according to a preliminary death toll from the watchdog.

At the end of a two-day summit in Cairo, the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation called for “serious dialogue” between the rebel coalition and regime officials open to political change and without blood on their hands, issuing a final declaration saying that “the Syrian government is primarily responsible for the violence,” and urging the U.N. Security Council to “assume its responsibilities to end the violence and bloodshed.”

Iran had “reservations about a passage or two” in the statement on Syria, departing OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said. Iraq and Lebanon also expressed reservations about the text, according to a source close to delegates.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi said he discussed a “general framework” on ways to resolve the conflict with Turkey and Iran on the sidelines of the summit.

“The foreign ministers are working on transforming this general framework into principles and measures” to be announced “in the coming days within an Arab, Islamic and international framework,” he said.

The summit was held in the absence of Syria, which the OIC suspended in August over the regime’s bloody crackdown on protests for democracy.