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Fighting rocks Syrian cities as UN mission ends

Forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad shelled rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo as fierce clashes broke out in Damascus on Friday, a day after the UN ended its monitoring mission in the war-torn country.


AFP - Government troops pounded rebel bastions in Aleppo and other parts of Syria on Friday and fierce fighting was reported in Damascus, a day after the UN called time on its observer mission.

The United Nations has announced that Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi will replace Kofi Annan as peace envoy to Syria.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey announced Friday that the former Algerian foreign minister and longtime U.N. official would succeed Annan as joint U.N.-Arab League envoy. The 78-year-old Brahimi has worked in several high-profile positions at the U.N., gaining a reputation as a tough, independent negotiator as envoy to Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti. He helped negotiate the end of Lebanon’s civil war.

Source: AP

The country was also bracing for demonstrations after the main Muslim weekly prayers, events that have often triggered violence during an increasingly barbaric conflict that is now in its 18th month and shows no signs of abating.

The UN announced its decision on Thursday, with the international community still deeply at odds over how to end the bloodshed and also deal with the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has called a meeting in New York Friday of UN ambassadors from the so-called Geneva action group on Syria but it was not clear whether Western governments – still angry at Moscow and Beijing for their vetoes of the UN resolutions – would attend.

The mission is ending less than three weeks after Kofi Annan announced his resignation as envoy for Syria, complaining that divisions among world powers and the increasing militarisation of the conflict had hindered his peace plan.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who has called for a continued "flexible" UN presence in Syria, is still negotiating with former Algerian foreign minister Lakhdar Brahimi to take over from Annan, diplomats and officials said.

More than 23,000 people have died since the revolt against Assad's iron-fisted rule broke out in March 2011, according to activists, while the UN puts the toll at around 17,000.

On Friday, the army clashed with rebels near the main military airport in Damascus and shelled southern parts of the capital as well as areas of the commercial hub of Aleppo and the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least 24 people were killed, after 180 people lost their lives across the country on Thursday, according to the Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground.

It also reported that the bodies of 65 unidentified people were found in Qatana, a town southwest of Damascus, without providing any further details.

It is impossible to independently verify the tolls.

In the province of Hama, several dozen people turned out for a demonstration under the slogan "If our Free Army is united, victory is assured".

On Thursday, activists reported that Syrian forces shelled a group of people queuing outside a bakery in a district of Aleppo, the city at the epicentre of the battle between Assad's government and armed rebels.

Rights groups accused the regime of another atrocity Wednesday when around 40 people, including women and children, were killed in a massive air strike in the rebel bastion of Aazaz near Turkey.

Turkey said over 2,000 people had fled across its border since the attack.

In a damning report this week, a UN panel said government forces and their militia allies had committed crimes against humanity including murder and torture, while also accusing the rebels of war crimes but to a lesser extent.

'Bashar is targeting civilians'

"We know we are no longer just collateral victims of the conflict, Bashar is actually targeting civilians," said Yasmine Shashati, a resident of the southwestern Aleppo district of Saif al-Dawla.

And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius renewed calls for Assad to go in the face of the relentless onslaught against Syrian civilians.

"France's position is clear: we consider Assad to be butchering his own people. He must leave, and the sooner he goes the better," he said in Jordan.

Fabius, who was in Lebanon Friday, told AFP he had information that Assad would be rocked by more "spectacular" defections soon.

Assad has already been abandoned by prime minister Riad Hijab and general Manaf Tlass, his childhood friend and the son of a close aide of Assad's father and predecessor as president Hafez.

Adding to the pressure, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation on Thursday suspended Syria after a similar move by the Arab League last year, saying it can no longer accept a regime that "massacres its people."

Syria rejected the OIC decision as part of a conspiracy it says is being waged against it with Western support by regional rivals led by Saudi Arabia.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited Damascus this week to push for greater aid access, warned the situation for Syrians was deteriorating, with the number of people in need possibly as high as 2.5 million.

Residents of conflict zones are facing increasingly precarious situations, with shortages of food, fuel and medical supplies reported, while the number of Syrians who have fled to neighbouring countries is at least 160,000.

But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem accused Arab states of failing to give even one dollar to help the humanitarian situation and instead sending in arms for the rebels.

As the two sides become more entrenched in Syria, there are fears the conflict could spread further afield, after mass kidnappings in Lebanon in retaliation for events across the border.

Several Gulf states ordered their nationals to leave Lebanon because of threats, while France's Fabius voiced concerns about the possible "contagion" of the Syria conflict.


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