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UN mediator at the Geneva peace talks Lakhdar Brahimi has announced that Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs “from now”.

Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said women and children were free to leave. He alleged armed groups were preventing them from leaving.

Lakhdar Brahimi said that the opposition had agreed to give the government lists of detainees held by armed groups.

He said it was “too early” to assess the prospects of a comprehensive deal.

Lakhdar Brahimi admitted the talks were proceeding slowly but said that on Monday he “expected the two parties to make some general statement about the way forward”.

The envoy said he hoped a humanitarian convoy from the UN and the Red Cross would be able to go to Homs on Monday.

Hundreds of people are reportedly trapped in besieged parts of the city, including some who are very ill.

Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs

Syria will allow women and children to leave the besieged area of Homs

Faisal Mekdad said he hoped arrangements could be made with local officials to allow the convoy access but that the aid must not fall into “the hands of terrorists”, the term Syrian officials for all armed opposition.

Lakhdar Brahimi said that the government would allow women and children to leave immediately but had asked for a list of adult male civilians who wanted to leave to ensure they were not fighters.

The envoy said the opposition had pledged to gather names of detainees from groups it had “authority over or contact with” but admitted that this did not include all anti-government groups fighting in Syria.

The opposition in turn has been asking for the release of thousands of prisoners in government detention.

Lakhdar Brahimi said the talks in Geneva had taken the form of a joint session with the government and opposition in the morning before he met the sides separately in the afternoon.

He added that he expected this pattern to be repeated on Monday.

Lakhdar Brahimi said he had been encouraged by the atmosphere at the talks on Sunday, saying they had been characterized by “respect and exchange”.


No direct words had been exchanged between the delegations but the two sides were talking to each other through him, Lakhdar Brahimi said.

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Syrian government and opposition representatives have met briefly face to face in Geneva in what is being hailed a small but significant step in talks aimed at “saving Syria”.

The initial gathering in Geneva lasted half an hour mediated by the UN’s Lakhdar Brahimi.

Delegates in Geneva are aiming at small concessions, not a full peace deal.

“Ending terrorism and violence” is the top priority, Syrian officials say. They insist it is too early to discuss President Bashar al-Assad’s position.

The two delegations filed in through separate doors into one room in the UN Geneva Headquarters, and sat down at the same U-shaped table, but said nothing to each other.

Lakhdar Brahimi spoke for half an hour. Then they all filed out again.

Ahead of the next face-to-face meeting, Lakhdar Brahimi will shuttle between the delegations, trying to build confidence with small achievements like localized ceasefires, release of detainees and the opening of humanitarian corridors.

There is hope that minor progress will pave the way for the discussion of wider issues like political transition next week, although there has been no sign of common ground on this so far.

Syrian government delegation has said the main issue of the Geneva talks is finding a solution to foreign-backed terrorism

Syrian government delegation has said the main issue of the Geneva talks is finding a solution to foreign-backed terrorism

Shortly after the initial meeting, the chief of staff to the leader of Syria’s National Coalition, Monzer Akbik, claimed that the transition process had started in earnest.

“Today we had the chance to speak directly to regime… You know dictators usually, they don’t like to listen. But today they had to listen to us and to the voice of the Syrian people that they want transition from dictatorship to democracy.”

However Syria’s Ambassador to the UN Bashar Jafari – part of the government delegation – said it was “too early” to talk of President Bashar al-Assad stepping down and that the issue was “not the priority”.

“Item number one should be putting an end to the terrorism and to the violence,” he said.

The envoy said the common ground between the parties “should be that we should talk about everything, everything, without any selectivity… and no preconditions and no hidden agendas”.

But he accused the coalition delegation of harboring “personal hatreds towards the government for whatever reasons”.

The opposition and government are fundamentally divided over the aims of the conference.

The government delegation has said the main issue of the talks is finding a solution to foreign-backed “terrorism”, by which it means the whole of the armed opposition.

The opposition, however, had insisted that the regime commit in writing to the 2012 Geneva I communiqué, which called for a transition process.

The communiqué urged Syria to form a transitional governing authority that “could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups”.

Syria’s civil conflict has claimed well over 100,000 lives since it began in 2011.

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Syrian government delegation has threatened to quit peace talks in Geneva if “serious” discussions do not begin by Saturday.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem issued the threat on Syrian state media after his team held talks with UN negotiator Lakhdar Brahimi.

Lakhdar Brahimi is due to meet the Syrian opposition separately later on Friday.

Correspondents say the talks have been troubled from the start, as both sides have deeply entrenched positions.

Syria’s civil conflict has claimed well over 100,000 lives, the UN says.

The violence has also driven 9.5 million people from their homes, creating a major humanitarian crisis within Syria and for its neighbors.

Fighting continued on the ground on Friday, with government forces bombing rebel-held areas in the northern city of Aleppo, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

This is the third day of the Geneva conference, but the first in which negotiations get under way in earnest.

Syrian government delegation has threatened to quit peace talks in Geneva if "serious" discussions do not begin by Saturday

Syrian government delegation has threatened to quit peace talks in Geneva if “serious” discussions do not begin by Saturday

There were initial hopes of a joint meeting between the two sides, but later it emerged that Mr Brahimi would hold talks with each separately.

Both sides blame the other for this setback.

The Damascus delegation complained about recent remarks made by the opposition chief, Ahmed Jarba, who said President Bashar al-Assad and his regime were a “political corpse” that could not be part of Syria’s future.

For its part, the opposition said it would not meet government delegates face-to-face until they signed a written commitment accepting the Geneva communiqué drafted 18 months ago, which calls for a transitional government.

While the two sides are opposed on many issues, they have both indicated a willingness to talk about concrete steps like local ceasefires, prisoner exchanges and establishing safe corridors for the delivery of badly needed humanitarian aid.

One of the main sticking points between the government and the rebels is the role of Bashar al-Assad.

The opposition demands his removal from office as a condition for peace.

It is supported in this by many key foreign observers, including Secretary of State John Kerry.

Syrian officials have flatly rejected any suggestion of Bashar al-Assad stepping down, and he has even suggested he will run for president again in elections due this year.

The Syrian government also has its supporters: Russia’s Deputy PM Arkady Dvorkovich.

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Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by rebels in Syria since August have been freed, Iranian state TV reports.

The Iranians were released in exchange for 2,130 prisoners held by the Syrian authorities, a Turkish charity said.

Rebel fighters claimed the hostages had been carrying out a mission on behalf of Syrian government forces.

Iran said a number were retired members of the armed forces, but insisted they were pilgrims who had visited a Shia shrine in the south-east of Damascus.

Officials at the Iranian Pilgrimage and Travel Organization said the group included university students and some public servants.

Shortly after they were seized, the Free Syrian Army’s al-Bara Brigade said it had evidence showing that the Iranians belonged to the Revolutionary Guards and had come to Syria to “serve the regime”.

On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, Ahmed al-Khatib, told the AFP news agency that the hostages had been freed.

The Syrian government has not yet confirmed their release and Iranian state TV made no mention of a swap deal.

But earlier, the Turkish Islamic aid organization, Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), said 2,130 civilian prisoners would be released by the Syrian authorities in return for the Iranians.

Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by rebels in Syria since August have been freed

Forty-eight Iranians held hostage by rebels in Syria since August have been freed

“Most of the prisoners to be swapped are Syrian citizens in exchange for Iranians, and there are a few Turks as well,” IHH board member Osman Atalay told Reuters news agency.

The head of the agency, Bulent Yildirim, was in Damascus to help co-ordinate the prisoner swap, which was already under way, he added.

The Turkish state news agency, Anadolu, said the deal was brokered by Turkey and Qatar, which have backed the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in which the UN says at least 60,000 people have died.

Meanwhile, the UN’s envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will meet top US and Russian diplomats in Geneva on Friday, Russia’s Interfax news agency reports, citing the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.

The meeting will take place less than a week after President Assad dismissed any chance of dialogue with the opposition in a speech on Sunday, and called on Syrians to fight the “murderous criminals” he claimed were responsible for the violence in their country.

On Monday, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he had been disappointed that the speech did not “contribute to a solution that could end the terrible suffering of the Syrian people”.

Ban Ki-moon and Lakhdar Brahimi strongly support the peace plan outlined by the Action Group for Syria in June.

The group called for an immediate cessation of violence and the establishment of a transitional government that could include officials serving under President Bashar al-Assad and members of the opposition.

Lakhdar Brahimi has said any plan must also include a “large, robust peacekeeping force” to ensure the ceasefire is observed.

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Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is to give a rare speech to the nation, state media say, as he continues to battle an uprising against his rule.

The address will cover “the latest developments in Syria and the region”, according to the Sana news agency.

It comes amid fierce fighting close to the capital, Damascus.

The UN estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the uprising against President Assad, which began in March 2011.

The speech will be Bashar al-Assad’s first public address since June.

In an interview with Russian TV in November – his last public comments – he said he would “live and die in Syria”.

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is to give a rare speech to the nation as he continues to battle an uprising against his rule

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is to give a rare speech to the nation as he continues to battle an uprising against his rule

Since then opposition rebels have gained control of swathes of territory in northern Syria, and have formed a more inclusive leadership council which has been recognized by the US and the EU.

But opposition efforts to gain ground in and around major cities including Damascus have been met by stiff resistance and increasingly destructive air strikes.

On Saturday the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported fierce fighting in Harasta and Daraya, suburbs of Damascus.

Diplomatic attempts to end the conflict in Syria have so far failed.

UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been pushing a plan approved at an international conference in June that would create a transitional government.

But the plan leaves President Assad’s role unclear. The Syrian opposition has insisted that Bashar al-Assad must step down for the conflict to end.

Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said a week ago that a negotiated solution was the only option.

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At least 90 people have been killed in a government air strike on a bakery in the central Syrian province of Hama, opposition activists say.

The incident took place in Halfaya, a town recently captured by rebels.

If activists’ reports of 90 deaths are confirmed, this would be one of the deadliest air strikes of the civil war.

Rebels have been fighting President Bashar al-Assad for 21 months, with opposition groups saying more than 44,000 people have been killed.

The latest violence comes as the joint United Nations-Arab League special envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, arrived in Damascus to discuss ways to end the unrest.

One activist in Halfaya, Samer al-Hamawi, told Reuters news agency: “There is no way to really know yet how many people were killed. When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground.

“We hadn’t received flour in around three days so everyone was going to the bakery today, and lots of them were women and children. I still don’t know yet if my relatives are among the dead.”

At least 90 people have been killed in a government air strike on a bakery in the central Syrian province of Hama

At least 90 people have been killed in a government air strike on a bakery in the central Syrian province of Hama

Unverified video footage purportedly of the incident’s aftermath showed graphic images of bloody bodies strewn on a road outside a partially destroyed building.

Rescuers were trying to remove some of the victims buried beneath piles of bricks and rubble.

Several badly damaged motorbikes could be seen scattered near the site of the attack which had drawn a number of armed men to the area.

Rebels of the Free Syrian Army have been making a concerted push recently to take areas of Hama province.

Five days ago they declared Halfaya a “liberated area” after taking over army positions there.

The rebels want to take control of the whole of Hama and link up the territory they control. As has happened many times before, he says, the government has hit back with massive firepower at the areas it has lost.

The UK-based opposition activist group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said there had been other air strikes on Sunday, including one on the town of Safira in northern Aleppo province, which killed 13 people.

The Observatory also reported that jets had struck the town of Saqba, just north of Damascus.

Meanwhile Lakhdar Brahimi, on his third trip to Damascus since taking the post, arrived overland from Beirut because of fighting near Damascus airport.

He is expected to meet Syria’s foreign minister and President Assad.

However, Lakhdar Brahimi has made little progress on a peace process so far and it is unclear what new ideas he may be bringing.

The rebels now have a clear sense of victory and will not call off their attacks while they feel success is imminent.

He says the rebels’ primary demand is for President Bashar al-Assad to go and, should that happen, the international community is hoping there may be a chance for negotiations for a peaceful transfer of power.

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Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN’s envoy to Syria, says President Bashar al-Assad’s government has agreed to abide by a ceasefire during the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Lakhdar Brahimi told reporters in Cairo that most opposition factions had also said they would observe any ceasefire.

The government said it would make its final decision on Thursday.

Lakhdar Brahimi said he hoped to use the lull in fighting over Eid al-Adha, which starts on Friday, to “discuss a longer and more effective ceasefire”.

Eid al-Adha, the Festival of the Sacrifice, is celebrated by Muslims to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael as proof of obedience to God.

Lakhdar Brahimi has travelled across the Middle East over the past two weeks in an effort to persuade the Syrian government and opposition, as well as their respective backers, to agree to his proposal for a ceasefire to “allow a political process to develop”.

After holding talks on Wednesday with the Arab League’s Secretary General, Nabil al-Arabi, the Algerian diplomat announced that the Syrian government had expressed its support.

“After the visit I made to Damascus, there is agreement from the Syrian government for a ceasefire during the Eid,” he told a news conference.

“Other factions in Syria that we were able to contact – heads of fighting groups – most of them also agree on the principle of the ceasefire.”

Lakhdar Brahimi did not give a precise time period for the truce.

“If this humble initiative succeeds, we hope we can build on it in order to negotiate a longer and more effective halt of military operations, which could be a part of a comprehensive political process,” he added.

The Syrian foreign ministry subsequently issued a statement saying the government’s final decision would be taken on Thursday because the army command was still “studying the cessation of military operations”.

A ceasefire negotiated in April by Lakhdar Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, broke down within days and was followed by an escalation in the conflict.

Human rights and opposition activists estimate that more than 30,000 people have been killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

 

International peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has met Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.

Lakhdar Brahimi, who represents the UN and the Arab League, is in Damascus to press both the government and the rebels to observe a truce over the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

On Friday, Lakhdar Brahimi met with Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and opposition leaders.

There has been no sign of the violence abating, with an explosion reported in a Christian area of Damascus on Sunday.

The attack apparently targeted a police station in the Bab Touma district of the old city.

Unconfirmed reports say at least one person was killed and several injured.

 

Heavy clashes were also reported on the main road between Damascus and Aleppo on Saturday, particularly around the town of Maarat al-Numan.

The town has been in rebel hands for more than a week and is seen as strategically important to maintaining a supply route between Syria’s largest city Aleppo and the capital Damascus.

Civilians in Syria are desperate for a ceasefire but many doubt President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will agree.

A ceasefire that started on 12 April was soon broken and more violence prevailed.

Lakhdar Brahimi is calling for a ceasefire over the festival of Eid al-Adha, which begins on Friday and lasts over the weekend.

For much of the past 18 months, rebel groups have been fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s government and at least 30,000 people are believed to have been killed.

Repeated efforts by the international community to find a diplomatic solution have foundered because of a deep divide at the UN Security Council.

In videos posted online, one rebel group said it was willing to respect a ceasefire given certain conditions, while other groups have not made a decision.

 

The UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, has had talks in Turkey amid rising tensions between Ankara and Damascus.

Lakhdar Brahimi met Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to hear Turkey’s perspective on the crisis.

Several days of cross-border firing followed the killing of five Turkish civilians by Syrian shelling last week.

Earlier this week, Turkey intercepted a Syria-bound plane amid reports it had Russian-made defence equipment aboard.

Syria has dismissed the claim as a lie, challenging Turkey to show any evidence.

In Syria itself, there were reports on Saturday that rebel fighters had shot down a Syrian military jet outside Aleppo.

Footage posted online showed the burning wreckage of what appeared to be an aircraft, but the claim has not been independently verified.

Lakhdar Brahimi met Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul on Saturday, as did German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

“It is important that no-one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation,” the German minister said, according to news agency AFP.

Meanwhile Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan told a conference in Istanbul that the UN’s failure to act in Syria gave President Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill tens or hundreds of people every day.

Turkey may not be at war with Syria, but it is now increasingly involved in its neighbor’s conflict.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government accuses Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of arming the rebels.

However, Syria has said it is ready to set up a joint committee to oversee security on the border.

Its foreign ministry said it had been discussing with diplomats from Russia, a key ally, the idea of a Syrian-Turkish security committee to avoid misunderstandings at the border, which would establish a “mechanism for surveillance of the border while respecting national sovereignty”.

Lakhdar Brahimi’s visit comes a day after he met senior Saudi officials in the city of Jeddah.

Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdel Aziz bin Abdullah was quoted as urging “an immediate halt to the bloodshed of the Syrian people”.

However, the envoy’s visit to the region carries no immediately obvious peace plan.

He adds that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suggested Lakhdar Brahimi may head to Damascus next week if his meetings in the region go well.

Meanwhile state media in Iran, Bashar al-Assad’s key supporter in the region, say Lakhdar Brahimi is to travel to Tehran on Sunday for talks, ahead of a visit to Iraq on Monday.

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Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province.

In Damascus, a bomb left at least five people dead and many more wounded in the Jaramana area of the city.

Meanwhile, the new international envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, said he viewed his new mission as near-impossible.

He is expected to visit Syria and meet President Bashar al-Assad.

Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province

Violence is continuing in Syria, with opposition activists saying that a warplane may have killed as many as 25 people in a strike in Aleppo province

Separately, the head of the Red Cross was travelling to Damascus on Monday in an attempt to improve aid access to civilians.

Peter Maurer said in a statement that “an adequate humanitarian response is required to keep pace” with the worsening violence.

In Aleppo, human rights groups said several women and children were among the 25 victims when a building was hit in the town of al-Bab.

Al-Bab, just to the north-east of Aleppo, appears to be largely in rebel hands, and has been heavily pounded by government forces in recent weeks.

Increasingly, as the conflict deepens, the regime has made fuller use of its air power – attack helicopters and fixed-wing jets – to support its ground forces as they try to root out the lightly-armed rebels from towns, cities and villages all over the country, our correspondent says.

In the car bombing in the Damascus suburb, one building was badly damaged and Syrian state news agency Sana reported that women and children were among the victims. Sana blamed “an armed terrorist group” for the attack.

The explosion is the second deadly bombing within a week targeting the predominantly Druze and Christian area of Jaramana.

At least 12 people were killed when a car bomb blew up at a funeral for two people said by opposition activists to have been supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

 

Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has given a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, as he takes up his new post.

In a recent interview with BBC, the veteran Algerian diplomat described his mission as “nearly impossible”.

Lakhdar Brahimi was appointed after his predecessor, Kofi Annan, resigned, saying he no longer saw a way to fulfill his mission after his peace plan failed to achieve a meaningful ceasefire.

Fighting in Syria has been escalating.

In the latest – still unconfirmed – incident, opposition activists say a warplane killed as many as 18 people in a single strike in Aleppo province.

Activists say 20,000 people have died since the uprising against the Syrian government began last March.

On Sunday, the pro-rebel Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 5,000 people were killed in August alone.

The conflict has increasingly come to resemble a full-scale civil war, forcing an estimated one million Syrians from their homes.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has given a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, as he takes up his new post

Lakhdar Brahimi, the new UN-Arab League envoy on Syria, has given a deeply pessimistic view of the task ahead of him, as he takes up his new post

Last month, the United Nations wound up the observer mission that had been tasked with monitoring the ceasefire in Syria under the six-point peace plan negotiated by Mr Annan.

“I’m coming into this job with my eyes open, and no illusions,” said Lakhdar Brahimi.

“I know how difficult it is – how nearly impossible. I can’t say impossible – [it is] nearly impossible.”

With few people believing that Lakhdar Brahimi can do much, it seems he sees his job as keeping expectations low.

Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to visit Syria and meet President Bashar al-Assad on 8 September.

The spokesman for the Syrian foreign ministry, Jihad Makdissi, said Syria would “give Brahimi all that he needs to make his mission a success for the interest of the country”.

A former Algerian foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi has also held a series of key UN appointments, including that of UN envoy to Afghanistan and mediator of the peace deal that ended the Lebanese civil war.

Analysts say he has a formidable reputation at the UN and his appointment has been widely welcomed.

But Lakhdar Brahimi admitted to some trepidation about his new mission, saying he could understand those frustrated with the lack of international action in Syria.

“I’m scared of the weight of responsibility. People are already saying: <<People are dying and what are you doing?>>

“And we are not doing much. That in itself is a terrible weight.”

Lakhdar Brahimi said he had so far failed to see “any cracks” in the “brick wall” that had defeated Mr Annan – an “intransigent” Syrian government, escalating rebel violence and a paralyzed UN Security Council, where China and Russia have vetoed several resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Damascus.

He said he would keep Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan – now seen by many as irrelevant – in his “tool box” for possible adaptation, but admitted he “had ideas, but no plan yet”, apart from talking to as many people as possible.

Addressing the Syrian government, he said the need for political change in Syria was “fundamental and urgent”, but – as he has previously – refused to be drawn on whether President Bashar al-Assad should step down, as the opposition and several Western leaders are demanding.

“Change cannot be cosmetic,” he said.

“There will be a new order, but I do not know who will be the people in the order. That’s for Syrians to decide.”

He also sought to keep a distance between himself and the rebels, who have criticized him for his cautious stance.

“Please remember I am not joining your movement,” he said.

“I am working for two international organizations, the United Nations and the Arab League, and I do not speak the same language as you.”

Lakhdar Brahimi’s comments came after another day of violence inside Syria on Sunday.

In Damascus, an explosion hit a district where major military and security compounds are located, reports say.

State TV described the blast – involving two bombs – as “terrorism” and said four people had been lightly injured.

Activists said more than 100 people were killed on Sunday, at least 25 of them in the village of al-Fan near Hama, when it was stormed by government forces.

Many of the 25, all men, were killed by army shelling, activist groups said, but they named at least nine who they said had been summarily executed in their homes by government forces or militia.

State television said security forces had attacked what it called an armed terrorist group in the area, killing all of them.

Rebels and government forces have been involved in a fierce battle for Damascus since July.

The building affected was a base for officers guarding the joint chiefs of staff offices nearby but was empty at the time, officials said.

Bomb attacks in Damascus and the largest city, Aleppo, have become increasingly frequent in recent months, with the authorities often blaming them on “armed terrorist gangs”.

 

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line” that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis.

Barack Obama said he had “at this point not ordered military engagement”.

But he added: “There would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.”

Earlier the new UN special envoy to Syria faced criticism for refusing to say whether President Bashar al-Assad must quit.

Barack Obama, speaking to reporters at a White House briefing, said the deployment or use of biological weapons would widen the conflict in the region.

He said: “It doesn’t just include Syria. It would concern allies in the region, including Israel, and it would concern us.”

He warned President Bashar al-Assad and “other players on the ground” about the use or movement of such weapons.

He said: “A red line for us is [if] we see a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around, or being utilized. That would change my calculus.”

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a "red line" that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis

President Barack Obama has said the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a "red line" that would change his thinking on intervention in the crisis

Syria holds the world’s fourth-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. Last month a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said the weapons would never be deployed inside Syria.

However, the US has seen unconfirmed reports recently that the Syrian authorities have been moving the country’s chemical arms stockpile.

Fighting continued in several Syrian cities on Monday, including Damascus, Deraa and Aleppo.

A Japanese journalist, Mika Yamamoto, was killed by gunfire in Aleppo, the country’s foreign ministry has confirmed.

Mika Yamamoto, 45, was a veteran war reporter, working for Japan Press.

The UN says more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict, 170,000 have fled Syria and 2.5 million need aid within the country.

Earlier on Monday, the UN’s new envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi said he was “not in a position to say yet” whether President Assad should go, but was “committed to finding a solution”.

Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister, last week succeeded Kofi Annan who resigned after both sides largely ignored his peace plan.

On Sunday, UN observers ended their mission to verify its implementation.

Their departure came after the UN Security Council agreed to allow their mandate to expire at midnight, and instead set up a new civilian office in Damascus to pursue political contacts that might lead to peace.

Since being confirmed as the new UN and Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi has acknowledged that he has no concrete ideas of how to end the conflict, which he believes has been a civil war for some time.

On Monday, he said he was not ready to say whether President Assad should step down despite widespread international condemnation of his government’s crackdown on dissent since protests erupted in March 2011.

“I am not in a position to say yet, because I was appointed a couple of days ago. I am going to New York for the first time to see the people who I am going to work for, and I am going to Cairo see the Arab League,” he explained.

After announcing his resignation, Lakhdar Brahimi’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, said: “It is clear that President Bashar al-Assad must leave office.”

The main opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council (SNC), said Lakhdar Brahimi’s stance showed “disregard for the blood of the Syrian people and their right of self-determination” and demanded he apologize.

Lakhdar Brahimi stressed that he was “committed to finding a solution full stop”.

“I am a mediator. I haven’t joined any Syrian party. I am a mediator and a mediator has to speak to anybody and everybody without influence or interest,” he added.

“Then I’ll make up my mind about what to say and what to do.”

 

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, officials have confirmed.

Lakhdar Brahimi, 78, will succeed Kofi Annan, who resigned earlier this month after his six-point peace plan failed to achieve a meaningful ceasefire.

China was the first nation to give its reaction, promising to “co-operate positively” with Lakhdar Brahimi.

However, fighting has continued unabated in the northern city of Aleppo and the capital, Damascus.

Explosions were heard in a number parts of the Syrian capital overnight.

In Aleppo, government troops repulsed attacks by rebel forces near the airport on Friday, Syria’s state-run media said.

Rebel commanders also said they were fighting near the airport, telling the New York Times that their fighters had advanced to within metres of the airport fence.

The claims have not been verified independently.

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Algerian diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi has been appointed as the new UN-Arab League envoy for Syria

Lakhdar Brahimi, whose appointment came a day after the UN called an end to its military observer mission, has held a long series of high-profile diplomatic posts.

As a senior Arab League official between 1984-91, Lakhdar Brahimi brokered an end to the Lebanese civil war, going on to serve as Algerian foreign minister between 1991-3.

Later, he was twice appointed as the UN’s top envoy for Afghanistan, from 1996-8 and from 2001-4. He has held similar roles for Haiti and South Africa.

A spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the UN welcomed Lakhdar Brahimi’s willingness to help stop “the violence and suffering in Syria”.

Announcing his resignation earlier this month, Kofi Annan had said he was unable to fulfill his role because of the growing militarization of the conflict, as well as the deadlock over the issue in the UN Security Council.

Russia and China have vetoed resolutions on the crisis three times, citing their opposition to any action which might be seen as regime change imposed from outside.

Co-operation was essential in order to find a peaceful resolution, said Lakhdar Brahimi.

“There is no doubt that I will be able to do strictly nothing if I do not have the support and if I do not have the co-operation of the Syrians,” he said.

But Lakhdar Brahimi also insisted diplomatic efforts should not be abandoned: “These missions have to be undertaken. We have got to try. We have got to see that the Syrian people are not abandoned.

“I might very well fail but we sometimes are lucky and we can get a breakthrough.”

At least 60 bodies were found earlier this week in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, activists said, following what the opposition described as a “massacre” by government forces.

A poor-quality video posted online showed what appeared to be the charred remains of dozens of people, many with their hands tied behind their backs.

Activists estimate about 20,000 people have died since anti-government protests erupted against the Assad regime in March last year. Tens of thousands of people have also fled the country.