Last Updated: Wed Sep 12, 2012 17:40 pm (KSA) 14:40 pm (GMT)

Syria envoy to head to Damascus on Thursday; EU says war crimes on rise in Syria

Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Binsh, near Idlib. (REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout)
Demonstrators protest against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Binsh, near Idlib. (REUTERS/Shaam News Network/Handout)

U.N.-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will head to Syria on Thursday, his first trip to the country since taking up his post, a senior Arab diplomat said on Wednesday.

Al Arabiya had also reported the date of the visit and said Brahimi would meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday as violence continued in the country.

Syrian rebels killed at least 18 soldiers in the northwestern town of Saraqeb on Wednesday when they set off a car bomb outside a military position and then attacked it, a watchdog said.

“There were 70 to 100 soldiers there when the attack occurred,” Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

“Twenty soldiers escaped, and clashes are still going on,” he added.

Abdul Rahman said details on the incident were still sketchy, and he was unable to say whether the car bombing had been a suicide attack.

As the fighting in Syria gets worse, forces loyal to President Assad and rebels determined to oust him are committing an increasing number of violations of international humanitarian law, the EU humanitarian chief said on Tuesday, as Iran said that the new “contact group” on Syria should include Iraq and Venezuela.

Syrian regime forces killed as many as 136 people across the country on Tuesday, mostly in Aleppo, Damascus and its suburbs and Hama, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local Coordination Committees.

“This is an asymmetrical war, and there is a degree of expansion of violation of international humanitarian law on both sides that seems to be escalating,” Kristalina Georgieva, the European Union’s commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response, told reporters, Reuters reported.

“This is why it’s so important to say in the simplest possible way: ‘No, you cannot do that, or if you do it, there will be consequences,’” she said after meeting with Anthony Lake, head of the U.N. children’s fund UNICEF.

The Syrian government and allied militia have been accused by the United Nations and Western governments of numerous large-scale massacres, though the rebels are also facing allegations of mass killings.

Amateur video posted on You Tube on Monday showed images of 20 dead Syrian soldiers, blindfolded and handcuffed, after they were apparently executed in the northern city of Aleppo.

Georgieva said that many of the rebels were likely unaware that they, like the government forces, were obligated to comply with international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. But ignorance of legal obligations would be no excuse when the war was over, she said.

UNICEF’s Lake said that rebels and government forces alike should be held accountable for any war crimes they commit during the conflict.

“There must be no impunity for anyone on either side,” Lake said.

Iran on Tuesday hailed Egypt’s aims in putting together a new “contact group” on the Syrian crisis, but said it wanted to expand the initiative to include its allies Iraq and Venezuela.

Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdulahian was quoted on his ministry’s website after attending the group’s first meeting in Cairo Monday that Egypt’s offer to host another session at a ministerial level “is a positive step” according to AFP.

He welcomed Egypt's stated goal of trying to stop Syria’s bloodshed through “consensus” in the group, based on policies to bring about a ceasefire, to maintain Syrian sovereignty and to reject any foreign intervention.

That was “a balanced solution,” Amir Abdulahian said.

The group, created by new Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, comprises Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran.

The first three countries have all publicly called for Assad to resign as a first step to quelling an 18-month conflict that is raging in his country.

Iran, however, is Assad’s staunchest ally and has said it will do everything it can to keep him in power.

Egypt said on Monday it planned to bring the foreign ministers of the group’s members together in the coming days. A Turkish diplomat told AFP the meeting could happen next week.

In an apparent bid to bolster Iran’s pro-Assad position in the group, Amir Abdulahian called for “Iraq, as the current head of the Arab League, and Venezuela, as part of Non-Aligned Movement troika” to be allowed to join the group.

Iraq’s Shiite-led government and Chavez are allied with Iran, which currently holds the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said later Tuesday he would evaluate the proposal.

“If we could help, God willing, in some way to bring peace to Syria, a nation that is being trampled by that violent imperialist policy, then I hope we can,” Chavez told a news conference.

“Greetings to President Bashar al-Assad and the kindred nation of Syria ... I hope we can help in some way,” Chavez said.

During a NAM summit in Tehran last month, Iran called for the formation of a NAM troika comprising Iran, Egypt and Venezuela, to also seek ways to end the violence in Syria.

Amir Abdulahian also voiced support for the mission of new U.N.-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who was also in Cairo on Monday to speak to Arab League and Egyptian officials.

Brahimi was to go on to Damascus in the coming days to meet officials and community representatives. He told reporters he did not know yet whether he would be able to see Assad.

U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said on Monday that justice would eventually catch up with anyone on either side of the Syrian conflict who was guilty of war crimes.

The United Nations has said that over 20,000 people have been killed in the 18-month conflict in Syria. Syrian opposition groups say that more than 27,000 have died.

The United Nations has said that the better-armed government forces and their allies have killed more people than the rebels, though neither side has clean hands in a conflict that is now widely seen as a full-scale civil war.

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