Syria rebels in new attack as Russia warns of war

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Rebel troops hit offices of Syria's ruling party on Thursday, a day after a spectacular raid on an intelligence base that prompted Russia to warn its longtime ally was being dragged into civil war.

The rocket-propelled grenade attack in Idlib province in the northwest, close to the Turkish border, came as security forces killed four people, including a nine-year-old girl, despite a three-day ultimatum from the Arab League to halt the bloodshed or risk sanctions.

"A group of dissident troops attacked regime youth offices, where security agents were meeting, with rocket-propelled grenades and clashes broke out," the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The attack came hot on the heels of a raid on an air force intelligence base in Harasta, outside the capital, on Wednesday by fighters of the Free Syrian Army, a rebel group formed by army deserters that has inflicted mounting losses on the regular army in recent months.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said it was "not surprising" the opposition was resorting to violence in its campaign to end President Bashar al-Assad's 11 years of iron-fisted rule.

"We don't condone it in any way, shape or form but... it's the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement (that) is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path," he said.

"We think that this kind of violence... it really plays into Assad's and his regime's hands when this becomes violent," the spokesman warned.

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the world community should call on all sides in Syria to stop violence, including the opposition.

"There are more and more weapons that are being smuggled in from neighbouring countries," Lavrov said.

"Today I saw a television report about some new so-called rebel Free Syrian Army organising an attack on the government building, on the building belonging to Syria's armed forces," he told reporters.

"This was quite similar to a true civil war," he warned.

Russia has been deeply opposed to Western efforts to internationalise the crisis in its Cold War ally, fearing it might clear the way for Libya-style Western military intervention under UN mandate.

On October 4, it joined with China in vetoing a Western-drafted Security Council resolution that would have threatened Assad's regime with "targeted measures" if it continued its deadly crackdown on protesters, which the UN says has killed more than 3,500 people.

Leading Syrian dissident Haithem al-Maleh took issue with Russia's warning of civil war, saying the intelligence base, where a number of detainees were being held, was a legitimate target in the protection of civilians.

"This attack on one of the worst departments of the security services does not mean a civil war. This army of defectors is protecting civilians, no more, no less," Maleh told the satellite news channel Al-Jazeera.

Security forces killed the nine-year-old girl on Thursday during a search operation in the town of Subkhan, in the eastern oil hub of Deir Ezzor, the Observatory said.

Two civilians were killed in the flashpoint central city of Homs and a fourth near Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, the watchdog added.

The deaths came after at least 23 people were killed on Wednesday even as Arab foreign ministers met in Morocco to discuss further measures against Assad's regime after suspending it from the Arab League at the weekend.

Ankara, a onetime ally of the Assad regime that has turned into one of its most outspoken critics, joined Wednesday's meetings in Morocco at which Arab foreign ministers decided to give Damascus three days to halt the bloodshed or risk sanctions.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stepped up the rhetoric on Thursday, saying more would be heard from the international community if Syria had rich oil resources like Libya.

"The silence and unresponsiveness of those who have an appetite for Libya to the massacres in Syria is creating irreparable wounds in the conscience of humanity," he charged.

In Istanbul, the leader of Syria's exiled Muslim Brotherhood said his compatriots would accept Turkish "intervention" in the conflict.

"The Syrian people would accept intervention coming from Turkey, rather than from the West, if its goal was to protect the people," Brotherhood leader Mohammad Riad Shakfa told a news conference.

On Thursday, pro-government daily Sabah reported the opposition Syrian National Council, together with the Brotherhood, had asked Turkey to establish a Libya-style no-fly zone in areas of northern Syria where there have been deadly clashes between troops and fugitive dissidents.

Brotherhood leader Mohammed Farouk Tayfour declined to comment on the report, only saying discussions had been held with several governments on "every possible means" to stop the bloodshed.

In a sign of Damascus's fast-growing isolation, Beijing, which joined Moscow in vetoing the October draft Security Council resolution, said Thursday it was "highly concerned" by developments and called on the Assad regime to cooperate with Arab League.

"We hope that all relevant parties will work together to accelerate the implementation of the resolution scheme reached between the Arab League and Syria and seek to resolve the Syrian crisis through political means," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.


© 2011 AFP

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