x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Syria peace envoy calls for ceasefire over Eid Al Adha

Lakhdar Brahimi makes his appeal as refugee numbers in neighbouring Turkey rise to more than 100,000.

Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces at the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Aleppo.
Syrian rebels take position during clashes with regime forces at the Umayyad Mosque in the old city of Aleppo.

ISTANBUL //The international peace envoy for Syria yesterday called for a ceasefire to mark the holiday of Eid Al Adha next week, as refugee numbers in neighbouring Turkey rose over 100,000, a dimension that Ankara says marks the end of the country's ability to cope with the influx.

Lakhdar Brahimi made his appeal ahead of his expected second visit to Syria since taking office last month. Mr Brahimi is to travel to Syria on Friday and meet president Bashar Al Assad on October 22, shortly before the start of Eid Al Adha, a Turkish diplomat said yesterday.

As Mr Brahimi called for calm, the fighting in Syria and high tensions between Turkey and Syria showed no sign of easing. One analyst said Turkish troop reinforcements at the border with Syria constituted the country's biggest military build-up in more than 20 years.

For the second time in less than a week, Turkey yesterday forced a foreign aircraft to land at a Turkish airport to inspect Syrian-bound cargo. The Armenian transport plane was allowed to proceed to Aleppo after investigators at the eastern city of Erzurum searched its hold and confirmed it was carrying humanitarian aid only.

Last Wednesday, Turkey forced a Syrian passenger plane to land in Ankara and said the aircraft had military goods for Syrian government troops on board. Following the incident, Syria and Turkey closed their airspaces to each other's aircraft. In a sign of further international isolation of Syria, the European Union yesterday declared all EU airports off-limits to Syrian aircraft.

Mr Brahimi, the UN and Arab league envoy, has been visiting regional countries affected by the crisis in Syria, where a government crackdown on an uprising has killed more than 30,000 people since March 2011. He was to travel to Iraq after talks with officials of Syria's ally Iran yesterday. Before, Mr Brahimi had held talks in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two countries that support the Syrian opposition.

"Brahimi has appealed to the Iranian authorities to assist in achieving a ceasefire in Syria during the forthcoming Eid Al Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated by the Muslims around the world," said a statement from the envoy, quoted by Agence-France Presse.

"He reiterated the call by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire and a halt to the flow of arms to both sides. A ceasefire, he said, would help create an environment that would allow a political process to develop."

A Syrian opposition official said Mr Brahimi was considering proposing the deployment of peacekeepers to Syria if a deal on a transition was reached.

There was no immediate reaction from the Syrian government to Mr Brahimi's ceasefire call. Damascus rejected Mr Ban's demand for a ceasefire last week. Mr Brahimi has warned that the crisis in Syria could spill over to other countries in the region.

Turkey's disaster relief agency said yesterday the number of refugees in a total of 14 camps along the border had reached 100,363. Turkey's government has long said the country will be not be able to cope with more than 100,000 refugees and has called on the United Nations to create a buffer zone within Syria where refugees could be safe from the fighting.

At least eight soldiers were killed in clashes with rebels at a military checkpoint near Aleppo yesterday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The city was rocked by a bomb at dawn while rebel-held neighbourhoods were bombarded by the army, the Britain-based watchdog said.

The fighting was reported to have damaged Umayyad Mosque, a 13th century landmark. Fire destroyed some of the antique carpets and wooden furnishings and three hairs and part of a tooth said to have been from the Prophet Mohammed, that were among the mosque's most renowned relics, were said to have been stolen.

Turkey sent military reinforcements, including tanks and artillery, to the Syrian border following the death of five Turkish civilians by a Syrian artillery shell in the Turkish border town of Akcakale on October 3 and sporadic exchange of artillery fire.

"It is the most important military activity since the end of the Iraq war of 1991," when Turkey was concerned the fighting could spill onto its own territory, Veysel Ayhan, director of the International Middle East Peace Research Centre, a think tank in Ankara, said in an emailed response.

He said there was no sign that Syria was getting ready to go to war with Turkey. Seen in that light, "there is a high probability that Turkey's preparations are directed at taking part in Syria's inner conflict from outside", Mr Ayhan said.

Celalettin Yavuz, the deputy director of the Turkish Center of International Relations and Strategic Analysis, another Ankara-based think tank, also said the build-up was "far beyond a peaceful period". But he said the aim of the reinforcements was to be able to react to any further Syrian shelling.

tseibert@thenational.ae

* With additional reports from Agence-France Presse