Arms, no-fly zone sought to avert ‘disaster’ in Syria
June 20 2013 10:52 PM

A Free Syrian Army fighter removes a spent shell at the Al Kindi hospital frontline in Aleppo yesterday.


Syrian rebels yesterday urged friendly world powers to provide them with heavier weapons and to impose a no-fly zone over parts of the country they control to avert a humanitarian disaster.

On the ground, troops and rebels battled in several districts and suburbs of Damascus, and the army shelled insurgent positions using heavy artillery and mortars, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Western and Arab powers from the so-called Friends of Syria group will meet in Doha tomorrow, and Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Meqdad said “the regime could use Scud missiles with unconventional warheads to shell liberated areas. So we need a safe haven.”

“It is necessary to establish secure areas and impose no-fly zones in the south or north,” he told AFP in Dubai.

Calling for anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, he said that “if they do not provide us with arms to protect civilian areas, a humanitarian disaster will occur because regime troops are committing massacres in the areas they are recapturing”.

Meqdad said “foreign militias, including (the Lebanese Shia movement) Hezbollah and Abulfadhl al-Abbas brigades (made up mainly of Iraqi Shia) do not respect any international conventions”.

Foreign ministers from Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Italy, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the US are to discuss aid for the rebels, including military help, a French diplomat said on Wednesday.

Western powers have so far refused to arm rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops - backed by Shia militias from neighbouring countries - out of fear they could fall into the hands of radical Islamists.

But Meqdad said “we are committed to ensuring that these weapons do not fall into the hands of unorganised or extremist groups”.

FSA chief of staff General Selim Idriss is seen as a reliable partner by the West, who mainly voice fears of groups such as Al Nusra Front, whose aim is to establish an Islamic state in Syria.

Meqdad said the regime has been amassing troops in preparation for an offensive on rebel-held areas on the outskirts of Damascus and second city Aleppo.

The expected campaign comes after Assad forces regained control of the strategic town of Qusayr, on the border with Lebanon, with Hezbollah help.

Lebanese President Michel Sleiman yesterday urged Hezbollah to end its participation in the war and “return to Lebanon... because this intervention leads to tensions in Lebanon”.

Last week, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said his fighters would stay in Syria.  The opposition has said Hezbollah forces are now deploying at other key sites in the country, including in the north.

“If they (Hezbollah) participate in the battle in Aleppo and there are more deaths in the ranks of the party it will raise tensions further. Qusayr must be the end, and they must return to Lebanon,” Sleiman said.

In Moscow, meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the West was dragging its feet on agreeing to a date for a peace conference because “they are not at all sure that they will be able to sell the opposition”.

Speaking of this week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland, Lavrov said Russia pushed for a concrete time frame to be spelled out but its Western partners refused to do so.

The opposition has long insisted that Assad’s departure is a precondition for any settlement, and said it “reserves the right to use all means at its disposal” to bring him down, “chiefly military action”.

The army, in some instances backed by Hezbollah, was seeking to retake rebel positions in suburbs south of the capital, and to cut off supply lines to others inside the capital, the Britain-based Observatory said.

A woman and her child were killed by government sniper fire in one district, it said.

Fighting also continued to rage in Qabun, accompanied by shelling, as the government sought to storm the northeastern district of the capital.

At least 93,000 people have died in more than two years of violence in Syria, and the Observatory said at least 133 were killed on Wednesday.

Unesco, meanwhile, added six ancient sites in Syria to the endangered World Heritage list, warning that the violence had inflicted heavy damage on them.

Regional strife forces annual Baalbek music festival from Lebanon’s Roman ruins

Lebanon’s annual Baalbek music festival has been forced to move from its usual venue among Roman ruins in the Bekaa Valley because of rocket fire and a spillover of fighting from Syria, organisers said yesterday.

Baalbek is a stronghold of the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, which is fighting across the border alongside its ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against a two-year-old rebel uprising.

Rockets thought to have been fired by supporters of the Syrian revolt over the past few weeks have landed in Baalbek and Hezbollah fighters have fought Syrian rebels on Lebanese soil east of the town.

The town is home to some of the best preserved Roman temples, in which world-renowned musicians such as jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald and British singer Sting have performed.

Nayla de Freij, chairwoman of the Baalbek International Festival Committee, said that security concerns made holding the event among the town’s ruins an “impossibility”.

But she said organisers were determined to press ahead with the festival, now scheduled to open on August 9, and they were looking at new venues, probably in Beirut, that would be announced shortly.

The festival, founded in 1956 by then-president Camille Chamoun, was halted during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war which ended in 1990. It was also suspended during a war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, when the modern part of the city was heavily bombed.

The event normally draws in tourists during Lebanon’s summer season, especially Arabs from the Gulf countries who come to escape the heat. This year, very few tourists have arrived, organisers say. The festival had originally been due to open in Baalbek on June 30 with a concert by Grammy Award-winning US soprano Renee Fleming but she cancelled her visit to Lebanon.

Lebanon’s other summer cultural festivals, including one held in Beiteddine Palace in the pine forest of the Chouf Mountains and another in the Phoenician port of Byblos, will go ahead as planned. The Beiteddine festival starts today.

Hala Chahine, director of the Beiteddine festival, said the number of foreigners attending the festival had dropped by 15% last year due to a decline in tourist arrivals.

“Lots of people won’t come to Lebanon ... but despite all this, we have to continue ... to show there is another Lebanon, there is a Lebanon with a civilized face and a cultural face.”





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