AP News

Brother of Syrian parliament speaker assassinated


BEIRUT (AP) — Gunmen killed the brother of Syria's parliament speaker in a hail of bullets as he drove to work in Damascus on Tuesday, the state news agency said, as the international envoy for Syria warned the country could become another Somalia.

Mohammed Osama Laham, the brother of Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham, became the latest victim of a wave of assassinations targeting Syrian officials, army officers and other prominent supporters of President Bashar Assad's regime. Four of the leader's top security officials were killed in a rebel bombing on the state security headquarters in Damascus in July.

Laham was gunned down in the Damascus neighborhood of Midan, the SANA state news agency said. The killing came a day after some of the most intense fighting in Damascus in months as rebels wage a civil war to unseat Assad.

The government and activists said a series of explosions Tuesday evening rocked the northwestern edge of Damascus. At least 13 people were killed and 30 wounded, according to a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media. SANA said the three blasts occurred in the al-Wuroud district near the town of Qudsaya, causing significant destruction.

Activists said the bombs were placed in a main square near housing for the country's elite troops from the Republican Guards, which is led by Assad's brother Maher in charge of protecting the capital.

U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who, like his predecessor Kofi Annan has been unable to put an end to the 19-month-old civil war, called the events in Syria a "big catastrophe." In remarks published Tuesday in the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, he said international efforts now are focused on getting a "binding resolution by the (U.N.) Security Council" to start a political process that will lead to change.

"I don't want to go too far in pessimism, but the situation in Syria is very dangerous. The Syrian people are suffering a lot," Brahimi said. "I believe that if the crisis is not solved in a right way, there will be the danger of Somalization. It will mean the fall of the state, rise of war lords and militias."

The east African nation of Somalia has been mired in conflict for two decades after warlords overthrew a longtime dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other. The government, backed by African Union troops, is currently battling Islamist extremist rebels linked to al-Qaida.

Syria, in comparison to Somalia, has always had a strong central government, and despite the loss of large swathes of territory to rebels in recent months, the government still maintains its grip on many parts of the country including Damascus, the seat of Assad's power, where basic government services still function.

But if the Syrian regime collapses, the country could fast shatter along multiple fault lines, leading to a protracted and bloody conflict.

The predominantly Sunni country is a patchwork of religious and ethnic groups. The regime is led by Assad's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but there are also considerable Kurdish and Christian populations in the country.

The conflict's already increasing sectarian overtones suggest any power vacuum could usher in a direct fight among the communities.

Predominantly Kurdish areas in the north and Alawite majority areas in the central coastal mountains could spin away, and mixed areas — already hard hit by the conflict — could plunge further into conflict.

Dozens of opposition groups and rebel brigades have taken up the fight against Assad, but they share little common vision for the future and are divided by acute ideological differences, particularly among secularists and Islamists. They could easily turn on one another after Assad's eventual fall.

Diplomacy has failed miserably in ending the conflict in Syria, which activists say has killed more than 36,000 people in 19 months of fighting.

British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested Tuesday that Assad could be allowed safe passage out of the country if that option would guarantee an end to the nation's civil war.

Asked in an interview with Al Arabiya television if he would contemplate offering Assad an exit route, Cameron said the international community would consider anything "to get that man out of the country and to have a safe transition in Syria."

In London, officials said Cameron was not suggesting Assad could escape potential international prosecution if he were to be granted passage out of Syria. They also confirmed that the British leader was not holding talks with counterparts aimed at crafting an exit deal.

As diplomacy has failed to make headway and the conflict has dragged out on the battlefield, Assad's military have been sapped by defections of low- and high-ranking soldiers.

The Turkish state news agency reported Tuesday that seven Syrian generals defected to Turkey. Anadolu said they arrived in the Turkish border province of Hatay seeking refuge. Their identities were not disclosed.

They join dozens of other generals who have abandoned the regime. More than 110,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey since the uprising began in March last year.

In Jordan, which also borders Syria, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with Riad Hijab, the former Syrian prime minister who defected to Jordan in August. It was a rare, high-level contact between Moscow and a Syrian opposition figure. Russia is one of the strongest international supporters of Assad's regime.

Lavrov said his talks with Hijab in Amman were meant to get firsthand information from the Syrian opposition on how they view a solution to the civil war.

"The idea of the meeting was to get an agreement or a roadmap on how to deal with opposition forces and save the Syrian people," Lavrov told reporters.

He voiced continued support for Assad's regime, warning that the alternative would plunge Syria into further chaos.

In the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Palestinian group Hamas said the Syrian government has sealed its offices in Damascus, finalizing the break between the Islamic militant group and its former patron.

Ayman Taha said the move had been expected after Hamas openly switched sides to support the armed rebellion against Assad's regime.

Hamas moved its headquarters to Syria in the late 1990s. But relations have soured since the regime violently suppressed an uprising that began as mostly peaceful protests. Many top Hamas leaders were based in Damascus until earlier this year when they moved to Qatar, Egypt and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Activists and state media reported clashes, shelling and air raids in different parts of Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said over 100 people were killed in violence across Syria on Tuesday, including air raids on Houla, a group of villages in central province of Homs, that killed seven people. The group also reported air raids on the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Kfar Batna and Maadamiyeh and the northern province of Idlib.

SANA said six regime supporters were killed when 11 mortars rounds fell near a pro-government demonstration Monday night in the northern city of Aleppo.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said an oil pipeline that carries crude from Al-Amr oil field in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour to a refinery in the central city of Homs blew up during fighting and shelling in the Homs suburb of Sultaniyah. Abdul-Rahman said it was not clear if the pipeline was targeted by a bomb or was hit by a random shell adding that the explosion causes a huge fire.

___

Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, David Stringer in London and Abdullah al-Shihri in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, contributed to this report.


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