Syria army steps up Damascus, Aleppo strikes

STEP DOWN?:A US official called a Syrian minister’s offer to discuss Bashar al-Assad’s possible resignation as ‘nothing terribly new,’ while Moscow told the West to back off

AFP, DAMASCUS

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 - Page 1

Government forces stepped up blistering attacks in Damascus and Aleppo yesterday after the regime said it was ready to discuss Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s exit in any talks on ending the brutal conflict.

At least 12 people were killed in a raid on a district of the capital, while fighter jets and artillery pummelled the northern city of Aleppo and rebels claimed seizing parts of a town on the Iraqi border, a watchdog said.

The US and France again pushed for the embattled al-Assad to stand down quickly after a top Syrian official said Damascus was ready to discuss his departure.

“As far as his resignation goes — making the resignation itself a condition for holding dialogue means that you will never be able to reach this dialogue,” Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said during a visit to Moscow.

However, he added: “Any problems can be discussed during negotiations. We are even ready to discuss this issue.”

Moscow bluntly told the West not to meddle in Syria after US President Barack Obama hinted at possible military action if Damascus resorted to its chemical weapons arsenal.

“There should be no interference from the outside,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after his talks with Jamil. “The only thing that foreign players should do is create conditions for the start of dialogue.”

However, Washington was unimpressed by the apparent opening from Damascus.

“We still believe that the faster Assad goes, the more chance there is to quickly move on to the day after,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, dismissing Jamil’s comments as “nothing terribly new.”

Yesterday, the violence on the ground showed no let-up after a bloody day that saw at least 198 people killed nationwide, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Fighter jets hit a rebel-held neighborhood of Aleppo and shelled several other areas of the city that has become the key battleground since fighting erupted there a month ago, it said.

Agence France-Presse reporters also said they heard explosions caused by what residents said were airstrikes around the towns of Marea and Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo.

Twelve people were also killed by troops in a raid on a Damascus district, the Observatory said, a day after it reported dozens killed when regime forces stormed another suburb of the capital and allegedly attacked a funeral procession. It also said rebel fighters had seized control of an intelligence office and checkpoints in the eastern town of Bu Kamal on the Iraqi border.

The Observatory has a network of activists on the ground, but its claims cannot be independently verified.

A top commander of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Colonel Abdel Jabbar al-Okaidi, said the rebels now controlled 60 percent of Aleppo, but a security source in Damascus dismissed the claims.