Assad forces shell northern towns; Russia sees chance for common ground at Geneva talks


Massive protests came out on Friday across the Syrian cities as at least 70 people have been killed by the fire of Syrian forces, Al Arabiya reported citing activists at the Local coordination Committees as the chief U.S. and Russian diplomats scrambled to save a peace plan for Syria.

In Damascus, protests called for the fall of the regime in the neighborhoods of Gobar, Kafr Sousa, Barza, al-Mazza, Qudsia and others. Similar demonstrations were reported in the neighborhoods of al-Humaidiya, al-Lattamena and Kafr Zita in Hama. In Homs, the protests went out in al-Malaab and al-Waar neighborhoods. Thousands rallies in Taseel and al-Yadouda in Deraa.

On the ground, regime forces pounded the Damascus suburb of Duma and the central city of Homs on Friday, activists said.

Helicopter gunships bombarded a strategic town in northern Syria overnight and tanks moved close to the commercial hub of Aleppo, rebels said, but kept well clear of new Turkish air defenses installed to curb Syrian action near its frontiers.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 190 people, including 125 civilians, were killed on Thursday, according to Reuters.

General Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the Higher Military Council, a grouping of senior officers who defected from Assad’s forces, said around 170 Syrian tanks had assembled at an infantry school near the village of Musalmieh northeast of the city of Aleppo, just 30 kms (19 miles) from the Turkish border.

“They’re either preparing to move to the border to counter the Turkish deployment or attack the rebellious (Syrian) towns and villages in and around the border zone north of Aleppo,” Sheikh told Reuters by telephone from the border.

Omar Abdallah, an activist in Idlib coordinating with the Free Syrian Army said: “After taking hits in rural Aleppo and Idlib, the army is re-grouping ... There is speculation that these forces intend to ring Aleppo starting July 1.”

Rebel sources in Turkey’s Hatay region said Assad’s helicopters attacked Saraqeb, a strategic town deep in Idlib province, but kept away from the area directly along the Turkish border in the rural regions of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Common grounds among world powers

Meanwhile, Russia said after talks with the United States on Friday that there was a chance that world powers would find common ground on how to resolve the conflict in Syria at crisis talks in Geneva on Saturday.

But Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned that it would be counterproductive to try to impose the outcome of the political transition process in advance.

“We have a very good chance to find common ground at the conference in Geneva tomorrow,” Lavrov told reporters after meeting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in St Petersburg.

Lavrov said that Clinton had agreed the Syrian governing lineup “can only be decided by the Syrians themselves.”

Russia, the last major ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has objected to a proposal that could limit membership of a transitional unity government in Syria, diplomats said.

Annan’s plan

Annan’s plan said the interim government could include Assad officials and the opposition “but would exclude... those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardize stability and reconciliation.”

Diplomats have said this means Assad could be ruled out of the government but did not automatically exclude his participation. Opposition figures could also be kept out under the same formula, they stressed.

Lavrov insisted on Thursday that Assad’s fate “must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves.”

He said world powers had yet to agree on any final resolution based on Annan's proposals for Saturday's meeting. “There are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues,” he said.

Clinton, in contrast to Lavrov, rejected any suggestion that Annan was proposing a transition imposed from outside.

“In his transition document it is a Syrian-led transition, but you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law,” she said before heading for Saint Petersburg.

Russia has throughout the crisis refused to call for the exit of Assad and has also defied pressure to stop delivering military hardware to his regime, a long-time ally.

Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to hold Paris talks with Abdul Basset Sayda, head of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council, which has expressed its own reservations about any transition that does not require Assad to quit.

Of the more than 15,800 people killed since the uprising broke out, nearly 4,700 have lost their lives since April 12, when a U.N.-backed ceasefire brokered by Annan was supposed to have taken effect, the Observatory said.