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Syria Rebels Fight for Control of Border Crossings

Violence in Syria Escalates as Russia Again Shields Assad at UN
Members of Jihadist group Hamza Abdualmuttalib train near Aleppo on July 19, 2012. Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/GettyImages

Syrian rebels fought for control of some of the country’s border crossings as the government held funerals in the capital for top security officials killed in a bomb attack two days ago.

At the United Nations in New York, Russia and China blocked a proposal to sanction President Bashar al-Assad’s government. A Russian diplomat said Assad has accepted the need to cede power in a “civilized manner.”

Opposition fighters won control of three border crossings with neighboring Turkey and one with Iraq, Al Arabiya television reported. Rebels and government troops clashed in Damascus for a fifth day yesterday. State television said today that security forces have “purged” the al-Midan district of the capital, where some of the heaviest fighting took place, and showed pictures of captured fighters.

The conflict in Syria, which began in March last year with protests against Assad, escalated this week when a bomb killed four top security officials. The civil war is splitting the country on increasingly sectarian lines, with a Sunni Muslim-led opposition confronting a government whose top officials are drawn from the Alawite sect, affiliated to Shiite Islam.

Security chief General Hisham Ikhtiar died as a result of his injuries sustained in the bombing, state television reported today. Funerals were held in Damascus for the other victims of the July 18 blast: Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat; Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and the vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani, it said. They were the most senior officials to die since the uprising began.

Syrians Flee

More than 30,000 Syrians fled to Lebanon via the Masnaa border in the last 48 hours, with cars backed up for a kilometer and Lebanese security officials waiving the usual paperwork requirements, the Beirut-based Daily Star reported.

About 125,000 Syrians have left the country since the conflict began, and as many as 500,000 people still in Syria have been displaced from their homes, the U.S. State Department said yesterday.

At least 180 people were killed yesterday by security forces, Al Jazeera television reported, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Adnan al-Assadi, Iraq’s deputy interior minister, told Al Jazeera that Iraqi border guards had witnessed the Free Syrian Army take control of a border outpost, detain a Syrian army lieutenant colonel, and then cut off his arms and legs.

Border Executions

“Then they executed 22 Syrian soldiers in front of the eyes of Iraqi soldiers,” Assadi said. “If this situation continues, we are going to close the entire border with Syria.”

The Western-drafted resolution at the UN Security Council excluded military action such as the UN-authorized NATO air strikes that helped to oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. It called for measures such as an embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian military and the freezing of assets.

U.S. officials criticized the veto by Russia and China, a repeat of their earlier opposition to sanctions.

“It’s a mistake to prop up that regime as it comes to an end,” President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters yesterday.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told the security council that the risk Assad may use chemical weapons against the rebels “should be a concern for us all.”

Russian UN envoy Vitaly Churkin accused the U.S. of “pushing its own geopolitical designs” in the region as it seeks to curb Iran’s nuclear program.

‘All About Iran’

“It’s all about Iran,” Churkin told reporters yesterday. “A major geopolitical battle is being fought on the fields of Syria, and which has nothing to do with the Syrian people.”

In Paris, Russian Ambassador Alexander Orlov told Radio France International that Assad accepts the need for his eventual departure under an international agreement reached on June 30 in Geneva that called for a political transition. Syria’s Information Ministry said the suggestion that the president was ready to depart was “baseless.”

The Security Council is due to vote today on a 30-day extension of the UN monitoring mission in Syria, sent to observe a cease-fire that has failed to halt the violence. The U.S. has objected to keeping monitors in the country because they’ve been unable to carry out the job they were given.

Rooftop Snipers

In Damascus, which until recently had been spared the worst of the carnage experienced in cities such as Homs and Hama, the military is deploying helicopters and heavy artillery against the rebels. Snipers have taken up positions on rooftops on the outskirts of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement yesterday.

The escalation came after the bomb attack at the national security headquarters.

Assad made his first appearance since the attack yesterday when state television showed him, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie, greeting the new defense minister and attending his swearing-in. It wasn’t clear where the brief ceremony took place.

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