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About 1.5 million people in Syria have been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict raging between government forces and rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, said Chaloka Beyani, a United Nations human-rights official.
The number of displaced persons and refugees fleeing to neighboring countries has grown as the fighting has escalated, with the government using artillery, aircraft and tanks to attack rebels in places such as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. More than 21,000 people have died since the unrest broke out 17 months ago, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.
“The intense fighting and use of heavy weaponry in densely populated areas are a major concern,” Beyani, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement from Geneva.
Assad loyalists killed 83 people across the country today, including 51 in Aleppo, according to the activist Local Coordination Committees. The Obama administration is preparing new sanctions on Assad’s government and its allies, the Associated Press reported today, citing unnamed senior officials traveling with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In Tehran, a 27-nation conference on Syria convened by Iran endorsed that nation’s call for a three-month cease-fire to begin with Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, which falls around Aug. 19.
The final communique called for discussing “political solutions based on national dialogue,” while also warning of the “dangerous impacts” if other nations continue to arm the Syrian opposition. Participants in the conference included Russia and China, which have blocked UN Security Council actions against Syria, as well as Algeria, Belarus, Cuba, India, Iraq, Nicaragua, Oman, Pakistan, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said the Islamic Republic supports in principle the Syrian opposition demands for a multiparty political system.
“The opposition is saying that it wants the Syrian regime to leave, and this is where we disagree,” he said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman, Patrick Ventrell, dismissed Iran’s assertion that it is seeking a solution given how it has helped Assad “stage-manage this repression.”
“It’s just hard to imagine how they could be a constructive actor in facilitating a political solution to the crisis,” he told reporters in Washington.
The meeting was the latest effort by Iran to aid its ally and emphasize what it describes as foreign interference in Syria. It came five days before the start of an Aug. 14-15 “emergency summit” of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation called by Saudi Arabia, which backs Syria’s rebels. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is scheduled to attend the meeting in Mecca.
Assad appointed Wael al-Halqi as prime minister, state television reported yesterday, following this week’s defection to Jordan of Riad Hijab.
The government said a ground assault resulted in the capture of key districts in Aleppo, Syria’s most populated urban region, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Much of the fighting has been in and around the Salaheddin district. Al Jazeera cited rebel commanders yesterday as saying they withdrew forces from parts of Salaheddin and the Associated Press reported the rebels said they were low on ammunition.
The U.S. believes the opposition is gaining ground, Ventrell said.
“Despite this onslaught, we think the army is increasingly overstretched” and the economy is strained, he said at a briefing. “We think the rebels are getting stronger, so they may tactically retreat from neighborhoods here or there, but the broader trend line is that the opposition continues to gain strength as they hold large swaths of territory in the north.”
Clinton heads to Turkey to discuss ways to end the Syrian conflict. She’ll meet tomorrow with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in Istanbul.
U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague today pledged an extra 5 million pounds ($7.8 million) in “non-lethal” assistance to the rebels, possibly including medical supplies, communications equipment and body armor.
In New York, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, said the Security Council shouldn’t extend the unarmed observer mission in Syria in its current form. The council is scheduled to consider the question on Aug. 16, three days before the mission is due to end.
“The extreme use of violence and heavy weapons by the government do not permit the UNSMIS monitors -— or any monitors at this point who are unarmed —- to do the job they were sent to do,” she said, using the acronym for the UN monitoring mission.
“That portion of UN activity is not able to function as the council had hoped when it was authorized,” Rice told reporters at the UN. “So that will not continue as far as we’re concerned. We would certainly be willing to entertain other conceptions of a UN presence. There will be a country team. There will be a humanitarian presence. Perhaps there will be recommendations that will be more political in nature that we can consider favorably.”
Rice said the U.S. is “open minded” about a successor to special envoy Kofi Annan, who resigned when his mediating effort failed to stem the bloodshed. Veteran UN troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi may succeed Annan, diplomats said yesterday.
The former Algerian foreign minister served as special representative and head of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004. Before that, Brahimi was the secretary-general’s special envoy for Afghanistan for two years, until October 1999.
Members of the French government clashed publicly with their predecessors after former President Nicolas Sarkozy met with a Syrian rebel leader and said in a statement that the situation in Syria “shared great similarities with the Libyan crisis,” suggesting that France and its allies should intervene militarily.
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Le Parisien yesterday that he was “stunned Sarkozy would be polemic on such a serious issue” and he “expected otherwise from a former president.”
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