UN envoy, German minister in Turkey for Syria talks


Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle were in Istanbul for talks with Turkish leaders on Saturday as tensions soared between Damascus and Ankara over cargo seized from a Syrian passenger plane.
Syria said it was ready to set up a joint committee to oversee security on the border as Turkey stepped up its warnings of reprisals for any further cross-border shelling like that which killed five of its nationals on October 3.
With rebel fighters in control of large swathes of the border area, there have been a series of incidents of cross-border fire this month that have sparked retaliatory shelling by NATO member Turkey and UN concern about the potential for escalation.
Turkey scrambled a fighter jet on Friday after a Syrian helicopter attacked the rebel-held town of Azmarin near the border, an official in Ankara told AFP.
Westerwelle, whose visit to Turkey was hastily scheduled, called for calm and restraint ahead of his meeting with Turkish counterpart Ahmet Davutoglu.
“It is important that no one pours oil on the fire. We are counting on moderation and de-escalation,” the German minister said.
The Syrian foreign ministry said it had been discussing with Russian diplomats the idea of a joint committee to avoid misunderstandings at the border.
The Russian proposal was for a “Syrian-Turkish security committee which would have the aim of establishing a mechanism for surveillance of the border while respecting national sovereignty,” a foreign ministry statement said.
It recalled comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday in which he urged a “channel of direct communication” between the two governments.
“Such a step will be the simplest way to eliminate any distorted explanations and interpretations,” Lavrov said at the time.
Russia, a traditional ally of Syria, backed a UN Security Council statement condemning the cross-border shelling but has angered the West by repeatedly blocking tougher UN action against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who is envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League, arrived in Istanbul from talks in Saudi Arabia.
The Damascus regime accuses both governments of arming the rebels who have been seeking to overthrow it.
Turkey’s interception of Wednesday’s flight from Moscow to Damascus and its confiscation of its cargo of radar equipment sparked a new war of words between the Russian and US governments.
Washington acknowledged that Moscow had broken no rules in allowing the cargo on board the flight but said that it was morally reprehensible for maintaining its alliance with Assad’s government.
“We have no doubt that this was serious military equipment,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
“We have been saying for almost a year now, that no responsible country ought to be aiding and abetting the war machine of the Assad regime,” she said.
“The policy’s still morally bankrupt.”
Lavrov said the Syrian Air flight had been carrying a cargo of radar equipment which could have either civilian or military uses, but insisted Moscow had violated no laws.
“This cargo is electrical technical equipment for radar stations. This is dual-purpose equipment but is not forbidden by any international conventions,” he said.
On the ground, the Syrian military launched air strikes against rebel fighters around a key town on the main highway between Damascus and second city Aleppo which they captured earlier this week.
The loss of Maaret al-Numan after two days of heavy fighting was a major blow for the military as it seeks to reinforce its beleaguered troops in the northern metropolis.
At least 12 rebel fighters were killed in air strikes south of the town late on Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Another 20 were wounded early Saturday as they attacked the nearby Wadi Deif base which remains in government hands, the Britain-based watchdog said.
More than 33,000 people have now been killed since the uprising against Assad’s rule erupted in March last year, it added.
Hundreds of thousands more have fled their homes.
In Aleppo, nearly 30,000 people have found refuge in student accommodation in the relatively peaceful Furqan neighbourhood in the west of the city, a campus official told AFP on Saturday.
Tens of thousands more are camped out in other public buildings.
The UN estimates that more than 2.5 million people have been affected by the fighting. There are more than 348,000 Syrian refugees registered in neighbouring countries, but many more are unregistered.