Iran FM in Syria to discuss peace efforts
DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. EPA PhotoThe foreign minister of close ally Iran arrived in Syria today after proposing to send observers and as Amnesty International accused the regime of waging "relentless, indiscriminate" attacks against its own people.
Ali Akbar Salehi's visit comes as the ex-head of Syria's chemical arsenal, Major General Adnan Sillu, told London's Times newspaper he had been involved in "serious discussion about the use of chemical weapons, including how we would use them and in what areas." Meanwhile, rebels withdrew from three southern districts of Damascus after several weeks of heavy combat and shelling, as fighting raged on in the second city, Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Salehi arrived in Damascus after a meeting in Cairo on Monday of the "contact group" on Syria -- Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
He appealed for "a simultaneous halt in clashes and violence by the sides in Syria, insisted on a peaceful solution without foreign intervention and a halt to financial, military and training support for the Syrian opposition," Iran state news agency IRNA said.
He also proposed that the four countries dispatch observers to Syria in an effort to quell the violence.
Last month, the United Nations withdrew its own observers after both sides failed to adhere to an April ceasefire to which they had committed themselves but that was not respected.
Tehran has systematically denied accusations that it is providing military aid to Assad's regime.
In turn, it has accused the West and several regional countries -- notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- of providing military and financial assistance to the rebels.
London-based Amnesty said "civilians, many of them children, are the main victims of a campaign of relentless and indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian army." It said it had new evidence "of a pattern which has emerged in recent weeks in areas where government forces, pushed into retreat by opposition forces, are now indiscriminately bombing and shelling lost territory -- with disastrous consequences for the civilian population." General Sillu said he defected from the army three months ago after being party to top-level talks about the use of chemical weapons against both rebels and civilians, The Times reported.
"We discussed this as a last resort -- such as if the regime lost control of an important area such as Aleppo," he was quoted as saying.
Sillu said he was convinced President Bashar al-Assad's regime would eventually use such weapons against civilians, and that the discussion had been "the last straw" which triggered his defection.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory said early on Wednesday that rebels had announced their withdrawal from three southern districts of Damascus after several days of shelling and intense fighting.
A network of activists, the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC), described the Al-Hajar al-Aswad, Qadam and Assali districts, and the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, as "disaster areas." "Since July 15, these neighbourhoods have suffered fierce army assaults, as well as indiscriminate shelling targeting civilian homes and shops," it said.
"People who fled the violence in search of safety have paid the highest price," the statement added.
The SRGC accused the regime of "carrying out a series of summary executions" in the south of the capital, adding that at least 200 people have been killed in the afflicted districts since the outbreak of violence there mid-summer.
It appealed to international agencies, particularly the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, to "help the residents of these disaster areas, and to immediately come to help... document the regime's crimes." In all, the Observatory said 40 people died in those districts on Tuesday, adding to a nationwide total of 173.
It says more than 27,000 people have died since the uprising erupted in March 2011, while the United Nations puts the figure at more than 20,000.
In Aleppo, where the two-month-old battle for control of the commercial capital remains fluid, the army said rebels attacked several military positions in the east overnight and that helicopter gunships eventually drove them off.
They also again assaulted the local headquarters of the feared air force intelligence agency, but without success.
The Observatory said there was shelling in several eastern districts of the city.