Damascus denies using cluster bombs as US urges Syria neighbors to survey airspace

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Syria denied on Monday a Human Rights Watch report that accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of using cluster bombs, which detonate and disperse smaller explosives, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, as the conflict in Syria to topple autocratic leader President Bashar al-Assad enters its 20th month, having claimed some 33,000 lives.

The Syrian army said it doesn’t have any cluster bombs in its arsenal, SANA said, citing a statement issued by the army.

Meanwhile, the United States called on all Syria’s neighbors to keep a careful watch over their airspace, after Turkey said it had intercepted a Syrian plane from Russia carrying military equipment.

“Certainly we support the decision that Turkey has made in light of the apparent violation of their airspace by this aircraft,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters, according to AFP.

“We are encouraging all of Syria’s neighbors to be vigilant with regard to how their airspace is used, particularly now that we have this concrete example.”

The Syrian Air plane traveling en route from Moscow to Damascus was forced by Turkish jets to land in Ankara last Wednesday, reportedly upon intelligence that the civilian plane carried military cargo.

After grounding the plane for nine hours, Ankara announced it seized “objectionable” cargo aboard the plane, triggering a furious reaction from Damascus and its main ally, Moscow.

Nuland stressed however that Turkey was “open to granting humanitarian exceptions.”

Ankara recently “granted approval for an Armenian flight... to overfly Turkey on the condition that it would land and be inspected. It was. It was confirmed to be humanitarian supplies, and they were allowed to go on to Syria,” Nuland said.

“So the Turks, from our perspective, are taking a measured and appropriate posture with regard to these things.”

International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meanwhile, has called for a ceasefire in Syria during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Brahimi made his call on Monday as he shuttled between Syria’s neighbors, which have been bitterly divided by the conflict along the confessional lines that have traditionally riven the Islamic world.

He was in Shiite-majority Iraq after talks in Shiite-ruled Iran, closest ally of the minority Alawite-dominated regime of Assad.

Last week, Brahimi visited Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two Sunni-led states which have been the greatest champions of the Syrian opposition.

“Brahimi has appealed to the Iranian authorities to assist in achieving a ceasefire in Syria during the forthcoming Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated by the Muslims around the world,” a statement from the envoy said.

Eid al-Adha, which falls at the end of October, marks the climax of the annual hajj pilgrimage.

“He reiterated the call by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire and a halt to the flow of arms to both sides. A ceasefire, he said, would help create an environment that would allow a political process to develop.”

But Brahimi denied a claim by Ahmed Ramadan, an official from the main opposition Syrian National Council, that he sought a peacekeeping force.

“You’ve read that I have asked for peacekeeping,” he told reporters in Baghdad. “I haven’t.”

Iran proposed to Brahimi a political transition supervised by Assad, Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdolahian said, an idea unlikely to be acceptable to the opposition.

Meanwhile the European Union imposed a new package of unilateral sanctions on Damascus on Monday, its 19th since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov of Russia, a traditional ally of Syria, visited Luxembourg on Sunday for talks with his EU counterparts, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday: “I can’t say that we made any progress.”

Russia and China have repeatedly blocked action at the U.N. Security Council against the Assad regime.

Inside Syria, at least 16 soldiers were killed around two checkpoints near the commercial capital of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Near one checkpoint, troops killed the driver of a vehicle carrying three tons of explosives that he intended to detonate, a security source told AFP.

Aleppo has seen intense conflict for the past three months, including in the city’s UNESCO-listed historic heart, with damage to both the ancient covered market, or souk, and the landmark 13th century Umayyad Mosque.

A day after troops recaptured the complex from rebels, spent cartridges and broken glass still littered the ground, an AFP correspondent reported.

At least 130 people were killed nationwide on Monday, including three children who died in army shelling of the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, the Observatory said.

It said 78 of those killed were civilians.

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