Syrian authorities yesterday arrested two prominent members of the country’s domestic opposition as they travelled to Riyadh to meet other regime opponents, a colleague said.
Ahmad al-Asrawi and Munir al-Bitar, two members of the National Co-ordination Committee for Democratic Change, were stopped at Syria’s border with Lebanon, said the body’s secretary general, Yahya Aziz.
Both Asrawi and Bitar were headed to Saudi Arabia to join fellow members of the opposition’s “supreme committee for negotiations,” Aziz said.
The “supreme committee” is a 33-member group formed earlier this month at a landmark meeting of Syria’s armed and political opposition in Riyadh.
The committee is set to choose at least part of an opposition delegation for peace talks with the government next month.
“Syrian authorities today arrested our two colleagues Ahmad al-Asrawi and Munir al-Bitar at the Syrian-Lebanese border point as they were heading to the supreme committee meeting in Riyadh,” Aziz said.
He said the pair were taken “to an unknown location”.
“Those who want a political solution would not do this,” he said.
In a statement published online, the NCCDC said the arrest contradicted “international efforts to reach a just political solution” to the conflict in Syria.
It demanded that Asrawi and Bitar be released and said Syrian authorities “were responsible for their safety”.
The arrest comes less than a week after Syria’s army claimed responsibility for the killing of rebel chief Zahran Alloush.
Alloush was the head of Jaish al-Islam, the most powerful rebel faction in the Damascus province.
Jaish al-Islam, too, had taken part in the opposition meeting in Riyadh.
Meanwhile, Syrian troops fought their way into a rebel-held town in the southern province of Deraa yesterday in an assault which rebels said was supported by the heaviest Russian aerial bombing campaign so far in the south.
Troops were in Sheikh Maskin’s main square and had taken over the eastern and northern neighbourhoods of the town which lies on a major supply route from the Syrian capital, Damascus, to the city of Deraa, the army said in a statement.
A rebel source confirmed troops had entered parts of the town and said fierce clashes were raging in the eastern neighbourhood known as the Masaken - an area of dozens of apartment buildings that formerly housed top army officers.
A commander in a leading rebel group fighting in the area said the heavy Russian bombing on their posts, where rebels had counted at least 100 raids in the past two days, had been decisive in tipping the balance against the rebels.
“This is the heaviest Russian bombing on the side of the regime in Deraa and without it the army, which faces manpower shortages, would not have made these gains,” said one commander from Jabhat Thuwwar Souria, a group involved in the fighting.
Rebels from an array of groups - some of them backed by Western powers and including the Islamist Muthana group - fought back against the offensive near a former air base north of the town of Sheikh Maskin, insurgents on the ground said.
The army assault on Sheikh Maskin is part of the government’s first major offensive in southern Syria since Russia joined the fight on September 30 to support its ally President Bashar al-Assad.
Its recapture would consolidate the army’s hold over the heavily fortified region which has formed a southern line of defence protecting Damascus.
Russia, which did not confirm the strikes and has up to now concentrated on the northwest and coastal areas, has said it is primarily targeting hardline Islamic State fighters.
Washington and other regional powers have regularly accused it of striking other anti-Assad rebel groups, seen as more moderate, that some in the West hope will form part of a future settlement of the near five-year war.
The army took the Brigade 82 base from the rebels on Tuesday, lost it as bad weather set in, and took it once more overnight with the support of the air strikes, said rebels.
Syria’s army said it had made advances overnight against insurgents who it said were mainly Al Qaeda inspired groups.
Sheikh Maskin, the main goal of the army’s southern campaign, lies on one of the main supply routes from the capital Damascus to the city of Deraa, close to the border with Jordan.
Securing the town would allow the army to press further south in mainly rebel held towns such as Ibtaa, Dael and in Ataman near Deraa city.