President Bashar Assad
The Syrian government on Saturday welcomed the naming of a former Algerian diplomat as the U.N.'s new point-man in efforts to halt the country's escalating civil war. Activists reported more shelling by regime troops, including an air attack on a northern border town where scores died earlier this week.
In a statement, the office of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa not only expressed support for Lakhdar Brahimi, it also denied reports circulating in Arab media that al-Sharaa had defected to the opposition, reports The Associated Press.
Al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country," the statement said.
The vice president's cousin Yaroub, a colonel in the military defected to the opposition earlier this month, appearing on the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV. The regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, though his inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.
The highest-ranking political defector so far, Assad's former prime minister Riad Hijab, has gone to Qatar where he may reveal his future plans, according to Syrian rebels and a relative of Hijab. Qatar is among a group of Gulf Arab nations that have backed the rebellion against Assad.
The new U.N. envoy, Brahimi, takes over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is stepping down on Aug. 31 after his attempts to broker a cease-fire failed. His appointment comes as U.N. observers have begun leaving Syria, with their mission officially over at the end of Sunday. Their deployment earlier this year had been one of the only concrete achievements in Annan's peace attempts. The observers had been intended to watch over a cease-fire, but no truce ever took hold.
Al-Sharaa's office said the vice president "supports Brahimi's demand to get united support from the Security Council to carry out his mission without obstacles."
In new violence Saturday, regime airstrikes and shelling his rebel areas across the country, including the southern province of Daraa, the northern region of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, activists said. Activists said at least 15 people were killed in the Deir el-Zour area.
One air raid hit the northern town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. There was no immediate word on casualties. Earlier this week, an airstrike on Azaz killed more than 40 people and wounded at least 100, according to international watchdog Human Rights Watch, whose team visited the site.
Azaz, which is home to around 35,000 people, is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites captured in May.
Also Saturday, 40 bodies were found piled on a street in the Damascus suburb of al-Tal, according to the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees. The suburb saw days of heavy fighting until regime forces largely took over the area earlier this week.