U.N.-Arab League envoy pushes for Syria talks

AFP-JIJI

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi on Sunday kept up his regional push for peace talks on Syria, where a suicide car bombing and assault on a key Damascus checkpoint killed 16 Syrian soldiers.

On Saturday Brahimi met with Egypt’s foreign minister, saying “intense efforts” are under way to convene a Syrian peace conference in Geneva next month.

Syrian state media blamed “terrorists” for a bombing at the entrance to the mixed Christian-Druze Damascus suburb of Jaramana.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a suicide bomber from the al-Qaida-linked Al-Nusra Front detonated an explosives-packed car at the checkpoint between Jaramana and rebel-held Mleha.

Fighting raged for much of Saturday, with rebel mortar fire hitting Jaramana and regime aircraft striking back, according to the Britain-based observatory, which relies on activists and medics on the ground.

At least 16 soldiers and 15 jihadists were killed, it said.

One resident said by telephone the fighting was “unprecedented” since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011: “It is very violent. We can hear automatic weapons fire, mortar rounds, bombardments.”

The conflict, which erupted after President Bashar Assad launched a bloody crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired democracy protests, is believed to have killed more than 115,000 people so far.

Millions more have been forced to flee the country, and hundreds of thousands are trapped by the fighting.

Some people are reportedly eating cats and dogs in order to survive.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos on Saturday called for a cease-fire in the Damascus suburb of Moadamiyet al-Sham, where thousands of people were evacuated recently and where she said “the same number or more remain trapped.”

Residents of Moadamiyet al-Sham said food is running desperately low and that children have died in some areas. A local cleric said he has issued a religious ruling allowing the eating of dogs and cats.

The founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, living in exile in Britain, said it published the grim toll of the civil war to draw the world’s attention to the “endless bloodbath.”

“Our objective is to release the truth about what is happening in Syria. We document, we verify and we report,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, adding, “Our only agenda is defending human rights and reaching a democratic state.”

In another sign of Syria’s growing misery, the World Health Organization said it has detected two possible cases of polio in the eastern Deir Ezzor province which, if confirmed, will be the country’s first known cases since 1999.

Meanwhile, nine Lebanese Shiite pilgrims seized by Syrian rebels 17 months ago and two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped in Beirut in August arrived back home late Saturday under an exchange deal mediated by Turkey and Qatar.