UN aid chief in Syria as tanks head for rebel bastion

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DAMASCUS  (AFP) – The UN’s humanitarian chief was in Syria on Wednesday to try to secure aid for battered protest cities, even as tanks and troops headed for a rebel bastion in Idlib province near the Turkish border.

Valerie Amos flew in for a two-day visit after an international outcry over President Bashar al-Assad’s previous refusal to let her in, and she is to followed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on Saturday.

Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in talks with Amos soon after she arrived in Damascus that Syria was ready to cooperate with the UN humanitarian delegation.

The state SANA news agency said Muallem “underlined Syria’s commitment to cooperate with the delegation within the framework of the respect, sovereignty and independence of Syria.”

It quoted Muallem as saying Syria was doing its best to provide food and medical assistance to its citizens despite “the burden it faces as a result of unfair sanctions imposed by some Western and Arab nations which are affecting the population.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been negotiating with authorities since last week to be allowed to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded from the battered Baba Amr rebel district of Homs city in central Syria.

Syrian authorities have said access was being denied because of safety concerns over mines and unexploded bombs, but the opposition charges that the delay is aimed at allowing time for the regime’s “crimes” to be covered up.

Amos’s arrival coincided with a report by the Syrian National Council, the main opposition grouping, that army reinforcements were on their way to Idlib province, a stronghold of Turkey-based Free Syrian Army rebels.

“The SNC has noted 42 tanks and 131 troop carriers leaving Latakia in the direction of the town of Saraqeb,” in Idlib, “as well as military columns heading for the town of Idlib,” the group said in a statement.

In addition, “several martyrs were killed” in bombardment of Maaret al-Numan, another town in Idlib province, it added.

The SNC called on the international community, the Arab League and international NGOs to “act urgently and at all levels, to avoid a repeat of the massacre at Baba Amr, where hundreds of martyrs fell.”

The group urged rebel fighters in the Damascus, Aleppo and Hama regions to “take all the necessary initiatives to alleviate the pressure on our brothers in Idlib.”

Baba Amr, a rebel district in the flashpoint city of Homs, was overrun last Thursday after almost a month of shelling by Syrian forces that cost hundreds of lives and which the SNC said reduced much of the city to rubble.

The Syrian army has intensified its attacks on insurgency strongholds, particularly in Idlib, since it retook Baba Amr.

On Tuesday, at least 16 people were killed as Syrian regime forces launched a major assault on Herak, a town in the southern province of Daraa, monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the overall death toll since last March has now reached almost 8,500, with civilians accounting for three-quarters of those killed and the rest made up of soldiers, security forces and rebels.

Also on Wednesday, a Chinese envoy sent to discuss ways to end the bloodshed in Syria was to discuss a six-point peace plan with Muallem and opposition figures.

Envoy Li Huaxin, quoted in Al-Watan newspaper, said he already met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnus to discuss China’s “six-point vision” on the year-long bloodshed in Syria.

The Chinese initiative calls for an immediate end to the violence and for dialogue between Assad’s regime and the opposition.

Beijing’s proposal rejects foreign interference or “external action for regime change” in Syria but supports the role of the UN Security Council “in strict accordance with the purposes and principles of the UN charter.”

Russia, which like China has been criticised for blocking Security Council action on the crisis, urged its ally Damascus and the rebels to “immediately” halt violence and assist Amos’s mission.

The Russian foreign ministry said it received Syria’s ambassador to Moscow at his own request and made clear that “violence must end immediately, no matter where it comes from.”

Russia also “underscored the critical need to solve acute humanitarian problems in Syria,” the ministry said.

In contrast to Qatar and Saudi Arabia which have supported the arming of the rebels, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr warned that such intervention would lead to a civil war, his ministry said on Wednesday.

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