Syrian FM calls on rebels to disarm and negotiate
Syria's foreign minister invited the country's rebels on Saturday to lay down their weapons and take part in a national dialogue, saying everyone who participates will be included in a new Cabinet with wide executive powers.
Walid al-Moallem said in a live interview on state TV late Saturday that any opposition parties could join the Cabinet as long as they reject foreign intervention in Syria. The Syrian government has started contacting "representatives of the Syrian people," he added.
Earlier this month, President Bashar Assad dismissed calls that he step down, vowing to keep fighting the rebels. Assad also proposed a national reconciliation conference, elections and a new constitution - concessions offered previously over the course of the uprising that began in March 2011. The opposition says that Assad can play no role in a resolution to the conflict.
"I tell the young men who carried arms to change and reform, take part in the dialogue for a new Syria and you will be a partner in building it. Why carry arms," al-Moallem said in the hour-long interview. "Those who want foreign intervention will not be among us."
He accused Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey of arming and financing the rebels in Syria. He said that Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-linked group which the U.S. has declared a terrorist organization but which fights alongside Syrian rebels, had brought fighters from 27 countries to fight in Syria.
Last month, the international envoy tasked with Syria's crisis, Lakhdar Brahimi, proposed a plan to end Syria's war with a cease-fire followed by the formation of a transitional government to run the country until new elections can be held.
Brahimi did not mention Assad by name, but said the transitional government would have "full executive powers" and would replace the Syrian leader. The plan was unveiled by world powers at an international conference in Geneva in June. Al-Moallem said that the Geneva conference does not require Assad to leave power.
The interview came as activists reported violence in different areas of Syria.
In the northern province of Idlib, Syrian troops fought intense battles Saturday against rebels who are trying to capture two military bases in the northwest and step up their attacks on army compounds elsewhere in the country, activists said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees said the rebels destroyed at least one tank near the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The rebels, who have been battling for weeks to take control of bases in Wadi Deif and Hamdiyeh, are working to cut off supply routes to the compounds, the Observatory said.
Attacks on government bases are a recent focus of fighting in Syria's civil war, which according to the United Nations has left more than 60,000 people dead since the conflict began in March 2011.
Last week, rebels captured the nearby air base of Taftanaz in a significant blow to President Bashar Assad's forces, who increasingly rely on airpower.
The rebels also have been trying to capture other air bases in the northern province of Aleppo, and, according to activists, were attacking the air base of Mannagh near the Turkish border.
In Turkey, state-run Anadolu news agency said Syria's air force targeted a mosque and a school building that was apparently sheltering displaced Syrians in the town of Salqin, some four miles (six kilometers) from the border with Turkey in Idlib province. Dozens of people were killed and wounded.
At least 30 people wounded in the attack were taken across the border to Turkey for treatment, and two died in Turkish hospitals, the news agency said.
The displaced Syrians were eating when the school was attacked, according to Anadolu, who interviewed witnesses who has crossed into the Turkish border province of Hatay. The wounded included women and children, the agency said.
Syria's official news agency SANA said troops had targeted rebel hideouts in Salqin, killing and wounding some of them.
Also in Turkey on Saturday, members of the newly-restructured Syrian opposition held a conference in Istanbul aiming to nominate representatives for a transitional government.
"We have some ideas, some proposals," said one opposition member, Abdul Ahad Astephoa, without mentioning any specifics.
The group, known as the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, was formed in Qatar in November amid international pressure to unite factions within the opposition.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the government was sending reinforcements to the central city of Homs where rebels have controlled some neighborhoods for more than a year. Residents of Homs, Syria's third largest city, were one of the first to rise up against Assad and many refer to it as "the capital of the revolution."
"It seems they are preparing for a big attack on Homs," Abdul-Rahman said by telephone.
The Observatory and the LCC said troops attacked several suburbs of the capital, Damascus, as well as Homs and the southern rebel-held town of Busra al-Harir. The shelling and air raids targeted the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Daraya and Moadamiyeh where regime forces have been on the offensive for weeks, they said.
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.