AP Interview: Syria opposition chief rejects talks

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Syria's main opposition group rejected calls Friday by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan for dialogue with President Bashar Assad's government, saying such talks are pointless and unrealistic as long as the regime is massacring its own people.

As the prospects for diplomacy faltered, a Turkish official said two Syrian generals, a colonel and two sergeants defected to Turkey on Thursday, a day after a Syrian deputy oil minister also deserted Assad's regime, making him the highest-ranking civilian official to join the opposition.

The military defections are significant as most army defectors so far have been low-level conscripts.

The U.N. humanitarian chief said the Syrian government had agreed to a joint mission to assess the country's humanitarian needs — a rare concession by a regime that has greatly limited work by outside groups. But Valerie Amos said she was still waiting for the Syrian government to respond to a long-term proposal to deliver aid.

Activists said at least 26 people were killed across Syria on Friday.

In a telephone interview from Paris, Burhan Ghalioun, who heads the opposition Syrian National Council, told The Associated Press that Annan already has disappointed the Syrian people.

Annan, who has been appointed joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, has said his mission was to start a "political process" to resolve the conflict in the country. He is due this weekend in Syria where he will meet with Assad.

In comments made in Cairo on Thursday after talks with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby, Annan warned against further militarization of the Syrian conflict and urged the opposition to come together with the government to find a political solution.

"I hope that no one is thinking very seriously of using force in this situation," Annan said. "I believe any further militarization would make the situation worse."

Annan also said he would be making "realistic" proposals to resolve the conflict. He did not elaborate.

But Ghalioun blasted such statements as unrealistic.

"These kind of comments are disappointing and do not give a lot of hope for people in Syria being massacred every day," Ghalioun said. "My fear is that, like other international envoys before him, the aim is to waste a month or two of pointless mediation efforts."

Syrian activists also rejected Annan's call for dialogue.

"It seems he lives on Mars," said Mohammed Saeed, an activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma.

"Between us and Bashar Assad are the bodies of 5,000 martyrs. We can't hear each other even if we wanted to," he said. "What dialogue are they talking about?"

Syria's opposition is fragmented and suffers from infighting, but most factions reject talks with the government while the military crackdown continues.

The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the past year since the revolt against Assad erupted in the country's south and engulfed the country. Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.

The uprising began with largely peaceful protests, but faced with a vicious regime crackdown, it has become increasingly militarized.

The SNC is openly calling for outside military intervention, but the subject is controversial and divisive.

"Any political solution will not succeed if it is not accompanied by military pressure on the regime," Ghalioun said.

Ghalioun faulted Annan for "avoiding" any references to the essence of the problem, which is the regime's use of extreme military force to crush the protests.

"As an international envoy, we hope he will have a mechanism for ending the violence," Ghalioun said.

Turkey's state-run television said two Syrian generals and a colonel have defected to Turkey as Syrian forces appeared to be targeting more rebellious areas, including the northern province of Idlib near Turkey.

The officers were among 234 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey since Thursday to find refuge in six camps, Yusuf Guler, the administrator for the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency. Already more than 11,000 people have sought sanctuary in Turkey.

Reinforcements have been pouring into Idlib for days, including dozens of tanks and armored personnel carriers, activists said. Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said they were being brought to the province's mountainous Jabal al-Zawiya region and town of Saraqeb.

"Many people are fleeing the area, fearing military operations," he said.

Late Friday, the Observatory said 54 people had been killed across Syria, almost half of them shot dead during government raids of three villages in Idlib.

Ten people were killed in gun and mortar fire on residential areas in the central city of Homs, and security forces shot dead others around the country during protests, the group said. Five more bodies were found in the Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs, which the government took from rebels last week after weeks of siege and shelling.

The military buildup in Idlib came as U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos toured Syrian refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border and met with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Friday.

Valerie Amos said the humanitarian assessment with the Syrian government was the first step toward setting up what she called a "robust and regular arrangement...which allows humanitarian organizations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies."

Protesters demonstrated across Syria on Friday, with the aim of rallying the country's Kurdish population in the hopes that members of the long-ostracized minority could help turn the tide against Assad.

Kurds — the largest ethnic minority in Syria — make up 15 percent of the country's 23 million people and have long complained of neglect and discrimination. While Kurds have so far not joined anti-government protests in particularly large numbers, authorities are clearly concerned they will. In April, Assad granted citizenship to 250,000 Kurds who were registered as aliens in an early overture to try to interrupt the momentum of the uprising.

In the past, the government has argued that they are not Syrians but Kurds who fled to the country from neighboring Turkey or Iraq.

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