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Explosion Strikes Near High Court in Damascus


By Erika Solomon and Khaled Yacoub Oweis


Thursday, June 28, 2012, 8:07am EDT


Rebel forces attacked Syria's main court in central Damascus on Thursday, state television said, while Turkey deployed troops and anti-aircraft rocket launchers to the Syrian border, building pressure on President Bashar al-Assad.

There was a loud explosion and a column of black smoke rose over Damascus, an Assad stronghold that until the last few days had seemed largely beyond the reach of rebels. State television described it as a "terrorist explosion" in the court car park.

The car park is used by lawyers and judges working at the Palace, Syria's highest court. It was unclear if there were casualties in the attack on a potent symbol of Assad's authority.

In southeastern Turkey, Turkish military convoys moved towards the Syrian frontier, reacting to Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane over the Mediterranean on Friday.

The build-up of defences coincided with an escalation of violence in Syria itself and a growing sense of urgency in Western- and Arab-backed diplomatic efforts to forge a unity government and end 16 months of bloodshed.

The fighting has often come close to Syria's northern border with Turkey. After Syria shot down the Turkish warplane, which Ankara says was in international airspace, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan ordered his troops to treat any Syrian military element approaching the border as a military target.

A first substantial convoy of about 30 military vehicles, including trucks loaded with missile batteries, dispatched from Turkey's coastal town of Iskenderun, was moving slowly towards the Syrian border 50 km (30 miles).

A Reuters reporter near the town of Antakya saw the convoy moving out of the hills and through small towns on a narrow highway escorted by police.

Early on Thursday, another convoy left a base at Gaziantep near the Syrian border and headed for Kilis province, which is the site of a large camp for Syrian refugees. Video from the DHA agency showed the convoy, of about 12 trucks and transporters, filing through the gates of the base past the hanging Turkish red flag with white crescent moon and star.

David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at IHS Jane's called the Turkish action a 'pragmatic, rational response' after the shooting down of the Turkish aircraft, that Syria insists was flying low and fast in Syrian air space. "Damascus has been warned once. I doubt there will be a second warning."

Turkey, in the forefront of Western efforts to press Assad from power after a 16 month insurrection, hosts over 33,000 Syrian refugees on its southeastern border as well as units of the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA) that is fighting to overthrow Assad.

Regional fears

"I can confirm there are troops being deployed along the border in Hatay province. Turkey is taking precautions after its jet was shot down," a Turkish official said on condition of anonymity.

He said he did not know how many troops or vehicles were being moved but said they were being stationed in the Yayladagi, Altinozu and Reyhanli border areas. He said anti-aircraft guns were being stationed along the border.

He could not confirm media reports of troop movements further east in the provinces of Gaziantep and Sanliurfa.

In Hatay province, members of the FSA said they did not believe the Turkish deployments were on a large scale.

Turkey has in the past spoken of opening a humanitarian corridor on Syrian soil, if the refugee flow grew unmanageable or if the violence and killing became intolerable.

Wary of igniting a regional sectarian conflagration, it has always insisted this would be possible only with United Nations backing. Western- and Arab-backed efforts to forge a joint diplomatic approach with Russia have so far failed.

The FSA has been rapidly escalating pressure on Damascus in recent weeks, culminating apparently in Thursday's attack on the court building.

On Wednesday, rebels stormed a pro-Assad Syrian television channel and militants have targeted police and security personnel barracks. In April militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at the Central Bank building.

A senior opposition official said Syrian opposition groups would reject a political transition plan proposed by peace envoy Kofi Annan unless it explicitly required Assad to step down before a unity government is formed.

Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said Annan's proposal did not stipulate Assad's resignation although it does say the unity government could not include figures who jeopardise stability.

"The proposal is still murky to us but I can tell you that if it does not clearly state that Assad must step down, it will be unacceptable to us," said Samir Nashar, an executive member of the international Syrian National Council.

Diplomatic stalemate

Annan's transition proposal is one of the main topics that Russia, the other four permanent U.N. Security Council members and key players in the Middle East will discuss at a meeting in Geneva on Saturday, according to United Nations diplomats.

Rebel fighters locked in the war to topple Assad said there was no part of the plan they could accept, and they had lost patience with U.N. envoy Annan's peace-making efforts.

"This is just a new labyrinth. It is new silliness for us to get lost in and haggle over who can participate and who can't," said Ahmed, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter in Homs, epicentre of the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule in which the more than 10,000 people have been killed, by a U.N. count.

A member of the rebel group in Damascus suburb was also dismissive.

"I'll be direct. The FSA is doing its work, and it is not looking to the outside world. We don't want a transitional government unless it is the one formed by rebel military councils. The world is conspiring against the Syrian revolution," he said.

In April, Annan tried to implement a ceasefire to quell violence before embarking on peace talks. But the truce failed to take hold.

Diplomatic sources at the United Nations said the plan Annan will now pitch on Saturday aims to start the political process without waiting for a ceasefire.

Annan proposes transitional government for Syria

By News Wires (text)

France 24, June 28, 2012


International envoy Kofi Annan has proposed setting up a Syrian transitional government that could include followers of President Bashar al-Assad and opposition members in a bid to end the country's war, diplomats said Wednesday.

The major powers -- the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, a key Assad ally -- generally back the plan that will be discussed at a meeting of foreign ministers Annan has convened in Geneva on Saturday, they said.

Annan's blueprint says the interim government could include members of Assad's government and opposition groups, but not officials "whose presence could harm the transition and jeopardize the credibility of the government or undermine efforts to bring reconciliation," according to a summary given by one UN diplomat.

"The language of Annan's plan suggests that Assad could be excluded but also that certain opposition figures could be ruled out," said a second UN diplomat.

The diplomat stressed, however, that there was nothing in Annan's document which automatically excluded Assad, who has been battling a 15-month-old uprising that activists say has left more than 15,000 dead.

The plan is contained in a set of "Guidelines and Principles of a Syrian-led Transition" that Annan sent out to ministers who will be at Saturday's meeting, diplomats said.

The Geneva meeting will be attended by foreign ministers from the major powers -- all permanent members of the UN Security Council -- along with Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq.

"Russia's acceptance of this plan could be a new sign that it is ready to let Assad go," said one diplomat. Another diplomat, however, expressed surprise that Russia would accept any plan under which Assad would be abandoned by its main ally.

Russia's UN ambassador Vitaly Churkin said there was no guarantee that Annan's document would be agreed to in Geneva.

"Whatever Kofi Annan is going to prepare is going to be basis of discussion for the ministers," Churkin told reporters.

"That does not mean that Russia is going to try to renegotiate everything.

"Of course Kofi Annan has been consulting with us and others on the paper -- it is not something that simply came to his mind -- but I would not rule out that there will be additional discussions on the paper or maybe something in addition to the paper. It is going to be a working conference," Churkin said.

Speaking in the Finnish capital Helsinki on Wednesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she had been in regular contact with Annan over his transition plan.

She did not make public details of his proposal, but noted: "I've been in close consultation with special envoy Kofi Annan about the prospects for a meeting that would focus on a roadmap for political transition in Syria."

Annan "has developed his own very concrete roadmap for political transition, he has been circulating it for comments and when I spoke to him yesterday I conveyed our support for the plan that he has put forward," said Clinton.

"We think it embodies the principles needed for any political transition in Syria that could lead to a peaceful, democratic and representative outcome reflecting the will of the Syrian people," she added.

Gunmen launch deadly attack on Syrian TV station

By News Wires (text)

France 24, June 28, 2012


An attack on a pro-government television near Damascus killed seven staff Wednesday, state media said, while 29 people died in other violence on the heels of the "bloodiest week" of the 15-month uprising, according to a watchdog.

Live footage broadcast by state television showed extensive damage to the studios of Al-Ikhbariya satellite channel outside the capital with several small fires still burning.

"The terrorist groups stormed the offices of Al-Ikhbariya, planted explosives in the studios and blew them up along with the equipment," Information Minister Omran al-Zohbi told state television in a live interview.

"They carried out the worst massacre against the media, executing journalists and security staff," Zohbi said, adding that a number of staff were kidnapped.

Those killed comprised three journalists and four security guards, state media said.

Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders called for members of a UN observer mission, which suspended its operations on June 16 in the face of worsening violence, to visit the scene to ascertain the facts.

"News organisations should not be used as targets by the parties to the conflict," the watchdog said.

"However, we deplore in the strongest possible terms the broadcast by the media of messages inciting hatred and violence against civilians."

In other violence on Wednesday, 10 soldiers were killed before dawn in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, while 15 troops defected to the rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Later Wednesday fierce clashes took place between regime troops and rebel fighters in Deir Ezzor city, where explosions were reported.

Five people were killed in shelling and shooting in the Damascus suburb of Douma and surrounding areas, while regime forces carried out raids and arrests elsewhere in the province.

The central city of Homs was exposed to heavy shelling by regime forces where "living conditions remain difficult because of the blockade and bombardment, which has continued for weeks", the Observatory said.

In the northwestern province of Idlib, clashes and shelling left six civilians and three rebels dead, in addition to five soldiers, among them a colonel of the elite Republican Guard.

More than 15,800 people have been killed since the outbreak of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in March last year, the Observatory said, adding that the seven days to Tuesday were the bloodiest so far.

"The pace of the killings has escalated," the watchdog said.

"The last week was the bloodiest week of the Syrian Revolution," Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by telephone, adding that 916 people were killed from June 20 through 26.

Of the 15,804 people killed since March 2011, 4,681 had lost their lives since a UN-backed ceasefire was supposed to take effect on April 12, he said.

Of those, roughly a quarter -- 1,197 -- have been killed since the UN observer mission intended to oversee the peace plan suspended its operations in the face of the mounting violence.

"The last month, from May 26 to June 26, was the deadliest since the start of the protests. During this period, 3,426 people were killed," Abdel Rahman said.

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