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Syrian army helicopters bombarded the northern rebel-held town of Al-Bab for a second day on Sunday, killing 20 people including four women when they dropped improvised barrel bombs on a market district, a monitoring group said.The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll could rise because many people were severely wounded in the raid, which came a day after 26 people were killed in a similar attack on the same town by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.The British-based Observatory said three rebels from the Tawhid Brigade were killed in Saturday's raid, which appeared to target their headquarters in Al-Bab.Sunday's attack may have been aimed at another rebel group, it said. However, barrel bombs - explosive-filled cylinders or oil barrels - are usually rolled out of the back of helicopters and are rarely delivered with any accuracy.
Three people were killed overnight in fighting in the north Lebanese city of Tripoli, security sources said on Sunday, raising to nine the death toll in 24 hours of violence fuelled by sectarian tensions over Syria's civil war.
The clashes between Tripoli's Alawite minority, which supports Syria's Alawite President Bashar al-Assad, and majority Sunni Muslims who back the Syrian rebels, is the latest round of violence which has killed more than 100 people in the Mediterranean city this year.
Gun battles have broken out five times since March, killing dozens of people, and twin car bombs at Sunni Muslim mosques in Tripoli killed 42 people in August. The latest clashes were preceded by repeated attacks on Alawite targets over the last week in which several people were wounded.
Tripoli residents said the sounds of heavy gunfire and rocket explosions echoed across Lebanon's second city from midnight to 6 am.
Syrian rebels including members of al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra entered a predominantly Christian village near Damascus on Saturday and are fighting government forces in the old part of the town, activists and state media said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels broke in to Maaloula in the early hours after starting the offensive the previous night, leaving casualties on both sides. The group says Jabhat al-Nusra members are among those fighting in the area.
Syria's state news agency SANA said government forces "wiped out a number of terrorists" while targeting their hideouts near Maaloula, using its preferred term for rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad. It gave no further details.
Prime Minister Wael Halki said on Saturday Syrian government forces were winning the war with rebels and would not rest while a single enemy fighter remained at large.
Maintaining Syria's unyielding response to Western calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, Halki said the era of "threats and intimidation has gone, never to return, while the era of victory and pride is being created now on Syrian soil".
He was speaking during a visit to Iran, which has provided military support and billions of dollars in economic aid to Assad during a 2-1/2-year-old civil war which has killed 100,000 people and shows little sign of being halted by diplomacy.
The United States has offered to destroy Syrian chemicals on a U.S. ship, the global chemical weapons watchdog said on Saturday, and is looking for a suitable Mediterranean port where processing can be carried out.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has been under pressure to find an alternative plan for the destruction of Syria's poison gas arsenal after Albania backed out of hosting the work.
The OPCW said 35 firms had expressed an interest in bidding for commercial contracts by Friday's deadline for the treatment of about 800 tonnes of bulk industrial chemicals that are safe to destroy in commercial incinerators.
But another 500 tonnes of chemicals, including nerve agents, are seen as too dangerous to import into a country or process commercially, and will be treated offshore on the U.S. ship.
The OPCW said the operation would be carried out on a U.S. vessel at sea using hydrolysis, adding a naval vessel was undergoing modifications to support the operations.
"The United States has offered to contribute a destruction technology, full operational support and financing to neutralize Syria's priority chemicals," an OPCW statement said.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have recaptured a Christian town on the main highway north of the capital, the army said, putting them back on the offensive in the strategic region near the Lebanese border.Assad's forces have made advances in recent months and are trying to secure the highway linking Damascus to the coastal heartland of his Alawite minority sect, but faced a setback last week when they lost the town of Deir Attiya to al Qaeda-linked fighters.The town is in the mountainous Qalamoun area overlooking the highway near the Lebanese border, a region that has emerged as the main battleground as Assad and his opponents try to secure a strategic advantage ahead of a peace conference in January."Units from the army managed to defeat terrorist groups which had infiltrated Deir Attiya... The operation eliminated many terrorists from different nationalities," a Syrian army statement said. The government refers to opposition fighters as terrorists.
A significant part of Syria's declaration of its chemical weapons includes chemicalsthat fall in the category of common industrial chemicals, or otherwise chemicals thatcan safely be rendered harmless or destroyed.
A critical related aspect of carrying out the destruction of these chemicals is theassociated costs. In line with the request of the Executive Council, I have establisheda special trust fund. The projected costs for the treatment and disposal of thechemicals declared by the Syrian Arab Republic and of the effluent generated duringthe destruction of mustard and binary chemical weapons components are in the rangeof EUR 35 to 45 million. This figure does not include the costs of transporting thechemicals to be destroyed, which are expected to be covered through in-kindcontributions. I wish to thank Denmark, Italy, and Norway, who have come forwardwith generous offers for maritime transportation.
A Maritime Planning Group is expected to meet in Cyprus to discuss and arrive atarrangements between States Parties offering to assist in transportation and to supportthe OPCW-UN Joint Mission. The Executive Council has requested me to submit, by17 December, a plan for the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons outside itsterritory. The Council has furthermore asked that the plan include provisions forensuring clear responsibility at each stage for all chemicals, including responsibilityfor the requirements of safety and security. It is my hope that the Maritime PlanningGroup will contribute to identifying the responsibilities of the States assisting in themaritime transport in accordance with existing legal regimes.Meanwhile, a large part of the materials and items necessary for the safe and securepackaging of chemicals has begun to arrive in Lebanon and arrangements are ongoingfor their onward transportation to Damascus, from where they will be distributed tothe various sites.
A growing number of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan are fast becoming primary providers for families who lack resources for basic survival, the United Nations refugee agency said in a report Friday.
With the Syrian conflict in its third year, the 61-page report by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees highlights the plight of the children, who are growing up in fractured families, missing out on education and increasingly going out to work to help support extended families in exile.
More than two million Syrians fled their homes because of the country's raging conflict, seeking shelter in neighboring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. At least half of the refugees — 1.1 million — are children. Of those, some 75 percent are under the age of 12, the UNHCR report said.
Children as young as seven work long hours of manual labor in fields, farms and shops for little pay, sometimes under dangerous or exploitative conditions, the report added.
Perhaps the statistic we should pay the most attention to is: 29 per cent of children interviewed said that they leave their home once a week or less. Home is often a crammed apartment, a makeshift shelter or a tent.
It should be no surprise that the needs of these children are vast. Too many have been wounded physically, psychologically or both. Some children have been drawn into the war—their innocence ruthlessly exploited.
A grave consequence of the conflict is that a generation is growing up without a formal education. More than half of all school-aged Syrian children in Jordan and Lebanon are not in school. In Lebanon, it is estimated that some 200,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children could remain out of school at the end of the year.
Another disturbing symptom of the crisis is the vast number of babies born in exile who do not have birth certificates. A recent UNHCR survey on birth registration in Lebanon revealed that 77 per cent of 781 refugee infants sampled did not have an official birth certificate. Between January and mid-October 2013, only 68 certificates were issued to babies born in Za’atari camp, Jordan.
Over 1.1 million Syrian children are refugees. This shameful milestone of conflict must deliver more than headlines.
Syrian peace talks planned for January must put in place a timeframe for a transitional government and should not involve any opposition group other than the National Coalition, Gulf Arab foreign ministers said.
In a statement issued on Wednesday after they met in Kuwait, foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members also said they hoped Iran's preliminary deal with world powers would lead to a comprehensive solution to its nuclear crisis.
"The ministers affirmed the importance of strengthening international support for the Syrian opposition represented by the National Coalition, for participation in the Geneva 2 conference," said the statement.
It added that the conference should lead to "an agreement to put in place a limited timeframe to form a Syrian transitional government with full executive powers, in accordance with the statement of Geneva 1 on January 30 2012".
The statement also reiterated the Gulf states' position that the National Coalition was the only legitimate representative of the Syrian people and that the Geneva talks should not go ahead with any other opposition groups.
Iran can show its good faith by convincing Assad that this has to stop, and yesterday’s call -- made jointly with Turkey -- for a pre-January cease-fire was an encouraging start that should be followed up aggressively. Assad should also be pressured to order his forces to protect aid workers and medical staff, no matter who they are helping: 32 clearly identified volunteers working with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed during the conflict so far. Saudi Arabia, in turn, would need to work with Qatar and Turkey to persuade their rebel clients to do the same.
Most important for a lasting settlement, though, is that Iran and Assad should accept that the Geneva II talks will be based on the accord reached at the first round last year. That Syria agreement, hammered out primarily by the U.S. and Russia, stipulates the creation of a transitional authority with full executive powers, including over the armed forces -- a requirement that Assad and Iran have so far rejected. Whether Assad can be part of that transition is a subject for negotiation, but if Iran truly wants, as it has told Brahimi, to be part of the solution, it should start by accepting the only framework available to produce one.
Following the issuance of the second monthly progress report regarding the OPCW- UN Joint Mission in Syria, a meeting of the Executive Council of the OPCW was held on 26 November 2013.
In his opening statement Director-General Üzümcü stated that “the resolve to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons in the safest and soonest manner possible reflects a collective commitment,” and added that “States Parties, especially those with the capacity to safely dispose of such chemicals, can and must play their part.”
A significant part of Syria’s stockpile falls in the category of common industrial chemicals - or chemicals that otherwise can safely be rendered harmless or destroyed by commercial chemical disposal companies. The Director-General urged Member States to encourage qualified firms based in their countries to participate in this process.
A large portion of the materials necessary for the safe and secure packaging of Syria’s declared chemicals has arrived in Lebanon. Arrangements are currently underway for their onward transportation to Damascus from where they will be distributed to the various relevant sites.
At the same time, the verification of destruction activities being conducted by Syria continues. The number of OPCW inspectors there will soon be increased in keeping with the need to run verification activities in parallel at different locations. This includes witnessing the decanting and packing of chemicals, collecting samples for further analysis, as well as monitoring the loading and embarkation of chemicals for transportation outside Syrian territory.
The programme to remove chemical weapons from Syria to locations elsewhere continues to pose challenges due to the security situation on the ground.
The jihadis scrawled their graffiti all over town. Black spray paint extends across wall after wall, spelling out religious exultations and verses from the Quran, written out in exacting calligraphy. It runs along the gates of shuttered storefronts; it’s stenciled onto telephone poles. It covers the former state security building, burned out and bullet-ridden, that was converted into an Islamic court.
Until recently, armed jihadi groups ran the dusty Syrian town of Yarubiya, pressed into the northeastern corner of the country, the gateway to a crossing into Iraq. The groups are gone now — driven out by Kurdish fighters in late October — but their graffiti remains, still visible beneath fresh layers of paint. The names of the fighting groups, like the Quranic verses, are also written everywhere, and they serve as a reminder: Al-Qaeda was here.
Rebels descended on Yarubiya and pried it from the Syrian regime in March. Most residents fled. Those who stayed recall a foggy transition among the town’s new overlords: Fighters who seemed moderate at first were replaced with — or superseded by, or became themselves — fighters who were ardently Islamist. Most belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra, the powerful force blacklisted by the U.S. as a branch of al-Qaeda; others to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, now the most feared group in the rebellion.
I welcome the news that United Nations Secretary-General Ban-ki Moon has set the date of 22 January 2014 for the long awaited conference on Syria, the so-called Geneva 2 meeting. On many occasions I have expressed my firm support for a political solution to the conflict in Syria. The EU has been a strong supporter of Joint Special Representative Brahimi's efforts. The EU has also been working to create conditions conducive to holding the conference among all important stakeholders.
I strongly support the call of the UNSG that the eight weeks ahead of us should be used to build up confidence among the parties through the cessation of violence, humanitarian access, release of detainees and return of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people to their homes. I also hope that both sides will soon designate representatives to the talks who in a spirit of openness and responsibility for their country will work towards finding a way out of this tragic conflict, and open a new chapter in Syria's history in line with the legitimate aspirations of all Syrians to live in a country where peace, security and stability have been restored.
It describes a "dangerous and difficult environment for humanitarian workers" and says 12 U.N. staff and 32 volunteers or staff of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been killed since the conflict began in March 2011. Another 21 U.N. staff members remain in detention, it said, without giving details.
The war has driven 6.5 million people from their homes in Syria and has prompted another 2.2 million to flee abroad. The United Nations has not updated its estimated death toll since July when it said the conflict had killed 100,000.
Some 9.3 million Syrians inside the country need assistance, half of them children, the document said. An estimated 575,000 people are wounded or need life-saving care.
It said the government has denied permission in the past month for U.N. convoys or missions to areas besieged by Assad's forces - including 7,000 people living in Mouadamiya and 160,000 in Eastern Ghouta, both outside Damascus, and 4,000 in Homs Old City. Some 25,000 are trapped by both sides in Yarmouk and 9,000 in Daraya, two areas just outside the capital.
Pope Francis and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on Monday and discussed the Middle East and problems faced by Christians across the world, but did not touch on the strained relationship between the Vatican and the Orthodox Church.
The 35-minute meeting at the Vatican was the first between Pope Francis and Putin, who met the pontiff's two immediate predecessors, Benedict and John Paul II.
"It was quite a cordial and constructive meeting," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters after the encounter. Putin had arrived around 45 minutes late because of transport problems.
The two leaders discussed the civil war in Syria and the pope stressed the need to end violence and bring assistance to the civilian population.
I welcome the fact that UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon has now set a concrete date for the Geneva peace conference on Syria. This is our only real opportunity to finally embark upon a political process.
We call on all political stakeholders in Syria to participate in the Geneva conference.
We will use the remaining time to work closely with our international partners in order to make the Geneva peace process a success.
Germany is making available an additional 2 million euros to the United Nations to support the Geneva peace process and the work of the UN Special Representative for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi.