Deadly blast near Syrian capital as envoy pushes peace


A deadly bombing rocked a pro-regime suburb of Syria’s capital on Saturday, state media said, as an envoy was to begin a Middle East tour to push for peace talks.

Nine Lebanese kidnapped by rebels in Syria last year were freed, meanwhile, in a development that could lead to the release of two Turkish pilots whose abduction was linked to their capture.

As the civil war raged, the United States warned of “unprecedented” reports of children dying of starvation, and demanded Syria allow aid convoys to reach besieged residential areas of Damascus.

Saturday morning’s bomb blast struck a government-controlled suburb southeast of Damascus mainly populated by Christians and Muslim Druze, said the official SANA news agency.

It blamed “terrorists” for the attack that it said left an unspecified number of people dead and wounded between Jaramana and the adjacent rebel-held town of Mleha.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 16 soldiers were killed in the blast and clashes that followed.

Lebanon said nine of its citizens kidnapped in March 2012 by rebels in Syria have been freed, with signs that two Turkish pilots whose abduction in Beirut was linked to their capture may be freed.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati said that Qatar, which along with Turkey supports Syria’s opposition, played a role in securing the release of the nine Shiites.

Ankara said the detention of the two Turkish Airlines pilots kidnapped near Beirut airport in August was now close to ending.

“Very favourable developments are under way concerning the two Turkish pilots. This matter has been largely settled,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, adding the pair could be freed “within hours or days”.

The Syria conflict erupted in March 2011, when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime launched a bloody crackdown on democracy protests inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings.

It is now estimated to have killed more than 115,000 people, forced millions to flee the devastated country as refugees, and trapped hundreds of thousands.

In a strongly-worded statement, the United States condemned the regime’s relentless siege of Eastern Ghouta and Moadamiyet al-Sham, two rebel-held neighborhoods on the capital’s outskirts.

There were “unprecedented reports of children dying of malnutrition-related causes in areas that are only a few miles from Bashar al-Assad’s palace in Damascus,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

“The regime’s deliberate prevention of the delivery of lifesaving humanitarian supplies to thousands of civilians is unconscionable.”

Envoy begins peace push

The call came as UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was to arrive in Cairo at the start of a regional tour aimed at paving the way for peace talks.

The international community hopes to convene a peace conference in Geneva next month but prospects for the talks remain unclear, with Syria’s opposition divided and due to vote next week on whether to take part.

In Geneva, spokeswoman Khawla Mattar said Brahimi would meet in Cairo with Egypt’s foreign minister as well as the head of the Arab League.

The full itinerary for the trip has not been finalized, she added, but stops in Syria and Damascus ally Iran are expected.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has also been pushing for the conference, will head to Europe next week for talks on Syria.

Kerry and other envoys from the so-called “Friends of Syria” group will meet the Syrian opposition in Britain on Tuesday to review progress towards convening the conference.

But the prospects for the talks remain dim, with the opposition divided on even the question of whether to attend.

The National Coalition, Syria’s main opposition bloc, said it would hold internal discussions next week to decide whether to do so.

The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Coalition, has already said it opposes the talks and threatened to quit if the umbrella group takes part.

The international community has been urging the rebels and the regime for months to participate in talks on a negotiated solution to the conflict.

But Assad’s government says his departure from office will not be on the table, while the opposition insists he cannot remain in power.

The renewed push for talks comes after a September deal under which Syria agreed to turn over its chemical arsenal for destruction.

Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, said Friday they have visited 14 out of more than 20 sites in Syria. AFP


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