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UN Envoy to Syria Calls for Eid Ceasefire*

DOHA, Oct 15 2012 (IPS) - The U.N.-Arab League envoy has called for a ceasefire in Syria during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, as the revolt against the Syrian government enters its 20th month with a death toll of more than 33,000.

Lakhdar Brahim made his call on Monday as he shuttled between Syria’s neighbours, which have been divided by the conflict.

He was in Iraq after holding talks in Iran, closest ally of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president.

Brahimi is weighing seeking authorisation for a peacekeeping force if a political deal can be struck, Ahmed Ramadan, an official of the opposition Syrian National Council, told the AFP news agency as the exiled opposition bloc met in Doha, Qatar.

Iranian officials put forward proposals for a political transition during their meetings with Brahimi but they were for one supervised by Assad, Hossein Amir Abdolahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, said on Monday, something that is likely to be unacceptable to the Syrian opposition.

Brahimi said he welcomed ideas from all sides.

“We hope all these ideas gather into a project to put an end to the Syrian people’s nightmare,” he said.

The Eid al-Adha holiday later this month marks the climax of the annual Muslim pilgrimage which is an obligation for the faithful who can afford it once in a lifetime.

In another diplomatic development, Sergei Lavrov, Russian foreign minister, whose government is a traditional ally of Syria, was in Luxembourg on Sunday for talks with his European Union counterparts.

“We discussed Syria really in all its dimensions with Mr Lavrov last night,” William Hague, British foreign secretary, said on Monday. “I can’t say that we made any progress.”

Russia and China have repeatedly blocked action at the U.N. Security Council against the Assad government.

The EU imposed a new package of unilateral sanctions on Monday, its 19th since the conflict erupted in March last year.

European politicians say the measures target Syrian personalities linked to violence against protesters and entities involved in supplying equipment used for repression by the Assad government.

Fighting in Aleppo

Inside Syria, at least 16 soldiers were killed in fighting around two checkpoints near the commercial capital of Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.S.-based opposition network, said on Monday.

Near one checkpoint, troops killed the driver of a vehicle which was carrying three tonnes of explosives that he intended to detonate, a security source told AFP.

Aleppo has been the theatre of intense conflict for the past three months, including in the city’s UNESCO-listed historic heart, with damage to both the ancient covered market, or souk, and the landmark 13th Century Umayyad Mosque.

Assad ordered the formation of a panel to oversee the mosque’s restoration, the state SANA news agency said.

A day after troops recaptured the complex in heavy fighting with rebels, spent cartridges and broken glass still littered the ground, an AFP correspondent reported.

Fire had destroyed some of the antique carpets and wooden furnishings that used to adorn the place of worship and charred one of its intricately sculpted colonnades.

In the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi border, shelling by the army of rebel positions killed three children aged six, seven and 12. They were among at least 48 people killed nationwide, the SOHR said.

Separately, over the weekend, rebel fighters pushed Syrian troops from the strategic town of Maarat al-Numan, in the northern Idlib province, forcing them to retreat to two military barracks on its outskirts.

Rebel commanders called the victory “a major breakthrough”, though fierce fighting continued in the greater Idlib province as government troops launched a counter-attack in a bid to regain territory lost recently in the northern battlegrounds.

Against this backdrop, a Turkish disaster agency said on Monday that the number of Syrians fleeing the conflict in their homeland and seeking refuge in Turkey now exceeded 100,000.

The AFAD agency said in a statement that there were now 100,363 Syrians at more than a dozen camps in Turkish provinces along the border.

Turkey had previously said that it would be able to handle no more than 100,000 refugees and had called for safe zones to protect people on Syrian soil.

Turkish officials have said, however, that the country will not close its doors to refugees if the number exceeds the threshold.

* Published under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

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