Syria’s armed opposition chiefs form military council to unite ranks


The head of the opposition Free Syrian Army, Riad al-Asaad, announced Saturday the formation of a military council grouping all rebel chiefs, including Syria’s most senior army deserter General Mustafa al-Sheikh.

The council “is a step towards guaranteeing the unity of the troops and armed forces (of the opposition) on Syrian territory,” Colonel Asaad told AFP by telephone from Turkey.

The announcement came as regime forces continued to pound the protest hubs of Hama, and Homs, killing more than 40 people on Saturday, monitors reported.

Mortar rounds rained down on the flashpoint central city of Homs and nearby town of Qusayr from early morning, killing several people, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

At least 54 people were reported killed in the violence nationwide on Saturday, local coordination committees reported.

With the year-long bloodshed showing no signs of abating, the U.N.-Arab League peace envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, flew to Moscow in an effort to secure strong Russian support for his efforts to bring about a ceasefire and open political dialogue.

While Western and Arab states are calling for President Bashar al-Assad to stand down first, Russia is putting the onus on the armed rebels and their foreign supporters to halt their year-long uprising, saying its long-time ally Syria was ready for talks.

“Russia sees an immediate end of violence in Syria is a priority,” the Kremlin said in a statement on Saturday, a day ahead of Annan’s meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev.

“... the key task is to convince the Syrian opposition to sit down at the negotiation table with the authorities and reach a peaceful resolution of the crisis,” it added.

On the ground, the idea of a negotiated peace seemed more remote than ever, with clashes reported in numerous locations.

Four died in Homs, the epicenter of the anti-Assad revolt, as the central city suffered another day of what activists said was indiscriminate gunfire and shelling on residential areas.

“The shelling started like it does every morning, for no reason. They are using mortar and tank fire on many neighborhoods of old Homs,” an activist in Homs’s Bab Sbaa district told Reuters by Skype.

He said most residents in the area had fled to safer districts and many were trying to escape the city altogether.

Syrian troops have repeatedly targeted Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and said last month they had regained the one-time rebel bastion. However, a sharp upswing in violence this past week suggests they are struggling to maintain control.