Red Cross negotiating Syria aid ceasefire

Agency holding talks with authorities and opposition to halt violence in order to deliver humanitarian supplies.

    The Red Cross says it is negotiating with the Syrian authorities and opposition fighters to try to bring a halt to violence in the country so it can deliver vital aid.

    The announcement comes amid reports that Syria's opposition is to take part in an international conference in Tunis on Friday to which European Union and Arab League members as well as China, Russia and the US have been invited.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)  "is exploring several possibilities for delivering urgently needed humanitarian aid", Saleh Dabbakeh, a Red Cross spokesman in Damascus, told Al Jazeera on Monday.

    "These include the cessation of fighting in the most affected areas to facilitate swift Syrian Arab Red Crescent and ICRC access to the people in need."

    He did not give explicit details on who was taking part in the talks, saying only that they were ongoing.

    "The content of the discussions with the Syrian authorities and all those involved in the fighting remains confidential," Dabbakeh said.

    The ICRC efforts came as opposition activists reported more deaths in violence across the country.

    Syrian forces opened fire with live ammunition on demonstrators in Damascus overnight, wounding at least four, activists told the Reuters news agency early on Tuesday as unrest continued to spread in the capital.

    "There were hundreds of demonstrators at the main square of Hajar al-Aswad [neighbourhood], and suddenly buses of security police and shabbiha [pro-Assad militia] turned up and started firing into the crowd," activist Abu Abdallah told Reuters.

    Rome conference

    Earlier on Monday, Rafik Abdessalem, Tunisia's foreign minister, speaking after a meeting of Mediterranean region foreign ministers in Rome, Italy, said an agreement had been reached on the need to avoid "an Iraqi scenario" and preserve Syria's integrity.

    "I don't think any Arab country is going to ask for military intervention [in Syria]. European countries don't want it either," Abdessalem said.

    "We don't want an Iraqi scenario ... we have to preserve the integrity of Syria.

    "We all agree on the need to urge the Syrian government to put an end to its suppression of demonstration. There are rights that should be secured for the people of Syria. They have a right to freedom and democracy."

    Reversing an earlier position expressed on Friday, Abdessalem said: "The Syrian National Council [SNC], the largest Syrian opposition group and other opposition groups will be represented at the Tunis meeting."

    Tunisia, which hosted a first international conference on Syria in December and broke off ties with the Assad government earlier this month, does not recognise the SNC as an official entity.

    Giulio Terzi, the Italian foreign minister, said his country wanted the Arab League's plan for Syria to be implemented.

    The Arab League has called for the UN to approve a joint Arab-UN peacekeeping force.

    McCain's appeal

    Separately, the powerful Republican senator, John McCain, has repeated his call for Syria's opposition to be given weapons to help "defend themselves" against President Bashar al-Assad's forces, while excluding direct US aid.

    "I'm not calling for the direct supply of weapons by the United States of America," he said in Cairo on Monday while underlining that Iran and Russia were supplying military aid to the Syrian government.

    McCain said earlier this month that diplomacy had been nearly exhausted and that the time had come to consider arming the outgunned Syrian opposition.

    In his latest remarks in the Egyptian capital, McCain said: "We have seen in Libya and we have seen in previous conflicts there are ways to get weapons to people so they can defend themselves.

    "There are ways to get weapons into Syria. It is time we gave the [opposition] the wherewithal to fight back and stop the slaughter."

    By contrast, General Martin Dempsey, the top US military officer, has said that any intervention in Syria would be "very difficult" and that it was "premature" to arm the the opposition.

    Meanwhile, on the ground Syrian troops massed around Homs on Monday, prompting calls for women and children to flee the besieged central city.

    Monitors said regime forces targeted Homs for a 17th straight day.

    Attacks there killed nine of the 16 people killed across the country on Monday, according to reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activists' group, and state media.

    The developments came as Iranian warships docked at the Syrian port of Tartus in a show of force and China's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, accused Syria's opposition of stirring up a civil war there.

    It said Arab and Western countries were paving the way for foreign intervention.

    Earlier this month, China and Russia blocked a draft UN Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan calling on Assad to step down.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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