x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Annan plans second Syria visit as killing continues

Human-rights monitors say that more than 900 people have been killed since Kofi Annan's April 12 ceasefire agreement was concluded with Syrian authorities.

DAMASCUS // The United Nations special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, will visit Damascus for a second time, his spokesman said yesterday, with the peace agreement he brokered more than a month ago failing to halt widespread violence.

The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots opposition network, put yesterday's death toll at 19.

Figures are difficult to verify, but human-rights monitors have said that more than 900 people have been killed since Mr Annan's April 12 ceasefire agreement was concluded with the Syrian authorities.

Daily violence has continued even with 250 UN observers deployed across the country to monitor compliance with the ceasefire deal. Thousands of political prisoners, supposed to be freed under the peace agreement, also remain in detention.

Syrian officials claim terrorists have killed scores of security personnel during the same period, and they have accused armed insurgents of increasing their activity since the peace deal was struck.

Ahmad Fawzi, the UN envoy's spokesman, said exact dates had not been finalised, but that Mr Annan's trip was expected to take place soon.

In March, Mr Annan met with the Syrian president Bashar Al Assadand opposition activists during his first visit to Damascus. One of Mr Annan's deputies, Jean Marie Guehenno, returned from Syria on Thursday following a six-day visit.

Syrian opposition groups have criticised the UN peace mission as being ineffective. Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has acknowledged continual violations, but on Thursday said it remained the only hope to avert a civil war, stressing there was "no plan B".

The conflict in Syria has threatened to spill over into Lebanon, which shares many of the potentially explosive political and sectarian divisions that trouble its neighbour.

An estimated 10 people have been killed in Syria-related clashes inside Lebanon during the past two weeks, although escalating tensions eased yesterday - at least temporarily - with the release of 11 Lebanese pilgrims kidnapped in Syria four days ago.

Lebanon's minister for health, Ali Hassan Khalil, confirmed that theprisoners had arrived in Turkey yesterday and were due to return home the same night.

The men, all Lebanese Shiites traveling to Beirut from Iran, were abducted by unknown gunmen in northern Syria, an area in which government control has been stretched to a breaking point.

Many Syrians have long cautioned against making road journeys through northern areas of the country, saying anti-regime gunmen and security forces each pose a risk to passers-by.

Roads across Syria, even major motorways, are frequently blocked by official and unofficial checkpoints. Even in the capital, late-night traffic is all but non-existent amid fears about security.

Hostage-taking has increased, and reports claim that regime forces swap prisoners and the bodies of killed activists for kidnapped security personnel seized by rebels.

Both Iran and a large portion of Lebanon's Shiite community, represented by Hizbollah, have openly sided with Mr Al Assad's regime - itself dominated by Alawites, a fringe Shiite sect - as it struggles to put down a 15-month uprising.Once popular in Syria for their defiance of Israel, Hizbollah and Iran are now seen as an enemy by many within the Syrian opposition, with some activists accusing Tehran and the Shiite militants of sending snipers to help bolster hard-core loyalists within Mr Al Assad's armed forces.

That has added to the sectarian undertones of Syria's situation, with the revolt strongest in areas inhabited by the country's Sunni majority. Nonetheless, members of minority groups, including Alawites and Christians, have been prominent in the uprising, while many of the regime loyalists facing them are Sunni.

Most of yesterday's killings took place in Hama, Deraa and Homs, all focal points of the uprising, but five people were killed in Aleppo by security forces, activists said.

Syria's second largest city and key commercial hub, Aleppo has been largely quiet since anti-regime protests began last March but has recently shown signs of becoming increasingly active, with the surrounding countryside in a state of all but open revolt.

Protests took place in hundreds of other locations across Syria yesterday, activists said.

Sana, Syria's state run news agency, reported that "terrorists" in Idlib province were killed when a bomb they were planting exploded prematurely.

Helicopter gunships yesterday also fired on rebel positions in the Latakia area of northwestern Syria, near the Turkish border, wounding at least 20 people, a monitoring group said. "This is the first time that this area, known as the Mountain of the Kurds, has been the target of air strikes," said the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman.

psands@thenational.ae

With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse and Associated Press