Dim hopes for truce as fighting rages on Syria battlefields
DAMASCUS - Hopes of a truce being implemented in war-torn Syria during this week's Muslim Eid holidays are "slim," the Arab League said Monday, as heavy fighting erupted in Damascus and on northern battlefields.
UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi had on Sunday indicated a favourable response to his appeal to both sides of the Syrian conflict to observe a truce during the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, which begins on Friday.
But Arab League deputy secretary general Ahmed Ben Helli said Monday that there is little chance of such a truce coming into effect.
"Unfortunately, hope for implementing the truce during Eid al-Adha is slim so far," Ben Helli said on the sidelines of the World Energy Forum in Dubai.
"The signs, both on the ground and by the government ... do not point to the presence of any real will" to implement a ceasefire, he added.
Even as Ben Helli spoke, fierce fighting raged across Syria, including around Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo and the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan in the northwest province of Idlib.
Brahimi said a truce during Eid al-Adha could allow the start of a more permanent peace initiative.
"This is a call to every Syrian, on the street, in the village, fighting in the regular army and its opponents, for them to take a unilateral decision to stop hostilities," he said on Sunday.
Brahimi said he contacted political opposition leaders inside and outside Syria and armed groups in the country and "found them to be very favourable" to the idea of a truce.
President Bashar al-Assad, during a meeting with Brahimi, said he was "open to any sincere efforts seeking to find a political solution to the crisis based on respecting Syria's sovereignty and rejecting any foreign interference," state media reported.
An editorial in Al-Baath newspaper, the mouthpiece of the ruling party, seemed cold to the idea however, saying rebels had already given their reply: a bomb attack on Sunday in Bab Touma, a Christian quarter of Damascus, in which 13 people died.
"Armed terrorist groups responded to Brahimi's (ceasefire) appeal with a series of explosions in Damascus, including a suicide bombing in Bab Touma, leaving dozens dead or wounded," it said.
On the ground, there was no sign on Monday of a let-up in the relentless violence.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian soldiers fought pitched battles with rebels near Maaret al-Numan and around an army base in nearby Wadi Daif, in Idlib province.
According to the Britain-based watchdog, Monday's clashes were the fiercest seen yet around Wadi Daif base, which has been besieged for more than a week by Free Syrian Army fighters and jihadist militants of the Al-Nusra Front.
The Observatory said a checkpoint near the base was in flames after it was attacked by the rebels, who killed at least nine soldiers.
Maaret al-Numan, a strategic town on the Aleppo-Damascus highway, has been the scene of intense fighting since it fell to rebels on October 9, severing a key army supply route.
In the commercial capital Aleppo, which has been battered by more than three months of clashes between troops and rebels, insurgents blew up a bridge of a train line on Monday, residents said.
The train link is primarily used to transport fuel from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor to Aleppo.
A military source confirmed that the bridge was destroyed.
Elsewhere in the northern city, fierce machinegun battles broke out near the ancient Umayyad Mosque, as troops fended off rebel attacks on their checkpoints, according to a military source.
"Until now we have kept them at bay, but this is a large attack," the source said.
The Observatory in an initial toll said at least 55 people had so far died in Syria on Monday, adding to a toll of more than 34,000 people the group says have been killed since an anti-regime revolt erupted in March last year.
Brahimi visited several countries with influence in the Syrian conflict over the past week, warning that the violence could spread and set the entire region ablaze.
Such fears were compounded when a massive car bomb exploded Friday in Beirut, killing a senior police intelligence chief linked to the anti-Damascus camp in Lebanon.
Damascus has emerged as the prime suspect in the attack, which has raised tensions in Lebanon that on Monday saw Lebanese troops and gunmen trade gunfire in a Beirut district.
On the Jordan border, a Jordanian soldier was killed before dawn on Monday in a clash with militants trying to cross into Syria, Amman's Information and Culture Minister Samih Maaytah said.