Syria rebels bombed as opposition open to peacekeepers

BEIRUT Sun Dec 2, 2012 12:22am IST

A view shows damages outside a Jesuit church in Homs November 30, 2012. REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

A view shows damages outside a Jesuit church in Homs November 30, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Yazan Homsy

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian jets bombed rebel-held areas of Damascus on Saturday, residents said, as the opposition indicated it could accept an international peacekeeping force if President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power.

Warplanes attacked the Damascus suburbs of Kafar Souseh and Darraya, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked group. The air strikes follow intensified rebel activity in the capital, Assad's seat of power, as well as successful stormings of government military bases in recent weeks.

"Syrian regular forces are trying to control the areas surrounding the capital," the Observatory said. Bombings targetted a continuous arc of rebel presence in the capital's outer districts from the northeast to the southwest.

Activists reported clashes and air strikes in the provinces of Homs, Deir al-Zor, Idlib and in Aleppo, where they said 14 rebel fighters were killed during an assault on an army base in the town of Khanasser early on Saturday.

It is difficult to verify such reports due to government restrictions on media access to Syria.

Syria's Internet connections began working again on Saturday after a two-day blackout, the worst communications outage in the 20-month-old uprising against Assad in which 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands forced to flee the country.

Opposition umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition might allow an international peacekeeping force into Syria if Assad and his allies leave power, coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni said on Saturday.

Some opposition members have argued against international troops, saying their arrival could serve as a rallying call for Assad loyalists in an area near the Mediterranean where many of his minority Alawite sect live.

Assad, whose family has ruled autocratically for four decades, draws much of his support from the sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. Most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.

Bunni said the coalition was open to any proposal if Assad and his allies, including top officers in the military and security apparatus, were removed.

"If this is the first condition then we can start discussing everything. There will be no political process until the ruling family and all those who underpin the regime leave," he added.

Bunni, a physician who spent most of the period after Assad inherited power from his father in 2000 in jail as a political prisoner, was speaking at a news conference marking the conclusion of the first full meeting of the 60-member opposition coalition in Cairo.

"IRON AND BLOOD"

Britain, France and Gulf countries have recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian people.

Most foreign powers have condemned Assad, who has relied on his allies to stay afloat, especially regional powerhouse Iran. Russia, Syria's main arms supplier, and China have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad and reject the idea of sanctioning his government.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Western states on Saturday of trying to advance democracy abroad through "iron and blood."

"Advancing democracy through iron and blood just does not work, and this has been made clear in recent months - the past year-and-a-half," Lavrov said, according to state-run news agency Itar-Tass.

Russia repeated its opposition on Friday to NATO's potential deployment of Patriot missiles in Turkey, which wants them because of fears of a spillover from the war in Syria.

Syrian state television quoted a ministry of information statement saying Damascus international airport was open on Saturday and that the road leading to it was safe.

Since Thursday, clashes have been reported near the Aqraba and Babilla districts on the southeastern outskirts of Damascus which lead to the airport, effectively closing the road and leading EgyptAir and Emirates to suspend flights.

U.S. web tracking firm Renesys said in a blog post that it could confirm "a largely complete restoration of the Syrian Internet."

Rights groups said the communications drop off was a precursor to a wider offensive by government forces in the capital. Syrian security sources and diplomats say the government intends to seal off central Damascus from the restive suburbs.

Authorities had attributed the Internet outage to a "terrorist" attack or a technical fault. On Saturday, state news agency SANA gave a third reason for the outage, which is said was now restored: "maintenance work."

Residents contacted by Reuters in the capital, the central city of Homs, and northern Aleppo said they had connectivity.

(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Cairo; editing by Jason Webb)

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