BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government on Saturday welcomed the naming of a former Algerian diplomat as the U.N.'s new point-man in efforts to halt the country's escalating civil war. Activists reported more shelling by regime troops, including an air attack on a northern border town where scores died earlier this week.
In a statement, the office of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa not only expressed support for Lakdar Brahimi, it also denied reports circulating in Arab media that al-Sharaa had defected to the opposition.
Al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country," the statement said.
The vice president's cousin Yaroub, a colonel in the military defected to the opposition earlier this month, appearing on the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV. The regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, though his inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.
The highest-ranking political defector so far, Assad's former prime minister Riad Hijab, has gone to Qatar where he may reveal his future plans, according to Syrian rebels and a relative of Hijab. Qatar is among a group of Gulf Arab nations that have backed the rebellion against Assad.
The new U.N. envoy, Brahimi, takes over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is stepping down on Aug. 31 after his attempts to broker a cease-fire failed. His appointment comes as U.N. observers have begun leaving Syria, with all due to leave by Sunday — ending a mission that had been one of the only concrete achievements in Annan's peace attempts. The observers had been intended to watch over a cease-fire, but no truce ever took hold.
Al-Sharaa's office said the vice president "supports Brahimi's demand to get united support from the Security Council to carry out his mission without obstacles."
On Saturday, Syrian activists said government troops shelled and carried out air raids at rebel areas across the country, including the southern province of Daraa, the northern region of Aleppo and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said one of the air raids targeted the northern town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, but it was not clear if there were casualties. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said the raid targeted fields adding that no one was hurt but the residents were scared.
On Wednesday, warplanes exacted a heavy toll with airstrikes on a residential neighborhood in Azaz close to the Turkish border. International watchdog Human Rights Watch said more than 40 people were killed and at least 100 wounded, many of them women and children. AP reporters saw nine bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including a baby.
Azaz, which is home to around 35,000 people, is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites captured in May.
A series of hostage-takings by the rebels — including grabbing a member of a powerful Lebanese Shiite clan — has touched off retaliatory abductions of Syrians in neighboring Lebanon and raised worries about the country being dragged into deeper unrest.
Lebanese security officials said Saturday that five more Syrians were abducted in Beirut's southern suburbs overnight. It was not clear who carried out the latest abductions but members of Lebanon's al-Mikdad clan say they are holding others Syrians, as well as at least one Turkish citizen.
The al-Mikdad clan said they had kidnapped Syrian nationals and the Turkish man in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of their relative, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, who was captured in Syria this week.
In Damascus, a U.N. spokeswoman said the last of the organization's observers still in Syria have started to leave the country ahead of the official end of their mission at midnight Sunday.
Juliette Touma told The Associated Press that most of the remaining observers will depart within hours while the travels of the others could be delayed because of logistics. There are about 100 observers left in Syria — a third of the number at the peak of the mission earlier this year.
The Security Council agreed this week to end the U.N. mission and back a small new liaison office that will support any future peace efforts.
The U.N.'s top body acknowledged that international efforts to significantly reduce the violence and end the Syrian government's use of heavy weapons — conditions set for the mission's possible extension — have failed.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.