Middle East

Activists report new strikes near Syrian capital

A view of buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Erbeen, near Damascus, in a picture provided by Shaam News Network January 6, 2013. REUTERS/Bassem Al-Erbeeni/Shaam News Network/Handout

BEIRUT: Syrian troops and rebels fought in embattled suburbs of the capital Damascus Tuesday, as government air raids and shelling in the other regions killed several dozen people, activists said.

The violence came a day after Syria's deputy foreign minister said President Bashar Assad will not step down before scheduled presidential elections in mid-2014. Faisal Mekdad said Assad will be running again for the post next year - a declaration which lowers already diminished expectations that a political settlement can be reached.

Since Syria's crisis began in March 2011, the opposition has said it will not accept anything less than Assad's departure.

Mekdad's comments appear to contradict a plan proposed by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Since starting his job in the summer, Brahimi has sought to advance an international plan that calls for an open-ended cease-fire between rebels and government troops and the formation of a transitional government to run the country until elections can be held.

Brahimi has not mentioned Assad by name in the plan, but he has said the transitional government would have "full executive powers," meaning "all the authority of the state should be possessed by that government" - a description that would seem to exclude the incumbent Assad from a role.

Asked by a BBC interviewer if the president says he wants to run in 2014, Mekdad answered, "What's wrong with that?"

"The president and many other candidates who may run will go to the people put their programs and to be elected by the people," Mekdad said in English. "The ballot box will be the place where the future of the leadership of Syria will be decided."

"It is a coup d'etat if the if we listen to what the armed groups and those enemies of Syria are proposing," Mekdad said, referring to the opposition and countries that support it.

Earlier this month, Assad dismissed calls from the U.S. and others that he step down and vowed to keep fighting until the country is free of "terrorists" - his government's shorthand for rebels.

Last year, a new constitution drafted in Syria imposed a limit of two seven-year terms on the president, but the limit would not count the nearly 13 years that he has already held the office. It means Assad could remain legally in power through 2028.

Assad came to power in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria since 1970.

Mekdad said it is undemocratic to tell Assad not to run for the post again.

"In a democracy you don't tell somebody not to run," Mekdad said. "So why to exclude x and y from such a democratic process? This is absolutely not democracy. This is pseudo-democracy."

Meanwhile, activists reported clashes in the southern Damascus suburbs of Beit Saham and Daraya as well as the Eastern Ghouta region and the southern neighborhood of Mleiha. The government is trying to drive rebels from their bases around Damascus from which they can threaten key facilities.

Away from Damascus, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees activist groups said troops bombarded the Houla region in the central province of Homs, killing at least 10 people including five women and two children. The LCC said 17 people were killed in Homs, most of them in Houla.

Both groups also reported deaths in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, the southern region of Daraa and the central province of Hama.

In Lebanon, the state-run National News Agency reported that a bomb went off on the roof of a home used by two Syrian families that fled the violence in Syria. The agency said the house in a village in the northern Akkar region was damaged, but there were no casualties.

It added that authorities are investigating the incident. There are some 180,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

The U.N. says at least 60,000 people have been killed in the war and millions have fled their homes.





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