- Associated Press - Monday, December 24, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — The international envoy to Syria said after talks with the country’s leader Monday that the situation was “worrying” and gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war.

Special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s mission came as activists reported intense fighting in the central province of Hama, where anti-government gunmen entered the predominantly Alawite town of Maan. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.

Mr. Brahimi said he and Mr. Assad exchanged views on the crisis and discussed possible steps forward, which he did not disclose. He spoke briefly to reporters after meeting the Syrian leader at the presidential palace in Damascus.

“The situation in Syria is still worrying, and we hope that all the parties will go toward the solution that the Syrian people are hoping for and look forward to,” Mr. Brahimi said.

Syria’s state news agency quoted Mr. Assad as saying his government supports “any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland’s sovereignty and independence.”

Mr. Brahimi apparently has made little progress toward brokering an end to the conflict since starting his job in September, primarily because both sides adamantly refuse to talk to each other.

The government describes the rebels as foreign-backed terrorists set on destroying the country. The opposition says that forces under Mr. Assad’s command have killed too many people for him to be part of any solution.

Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.

Mr. Brahimi’s two-day visit was to end later Monday. It is his third to Damascus as an envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.

The security situation in Damascus and elsewhere in the country has declined since Mr.  Brahimi’s previous visits. Instead of flying into the Damascus International Airport, as he did on earlier visits, Mr. Brahimi drove to Damascus from the Lebanese capital, Beirut, because of fighting near the Damascus airport.

In Hama province, where rebels launched an offensive against army checkpoints and posts last week, opposition gunmen entered Maan and raised the opposition flag over the main police station, Hama activist Mousab Alhamadee said via Skype. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels included members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has been branded a terrorist organization by the U.S. and is affiliated with al Qaeda.

The Observatory and Mr. Alhamadee said the rebels shot down a Syrian government MiG warplane that was attacking rebel positions in and around Maan. The Observatory said at least 20 soldiers and 11 rebels were killed in Monday’s fighting.

A U.N. human rights report released last week said the civil war is increasingly a sectarian conflict between rebels from the country’s Sunni Muslim majority and government forces largely supported by the country’s religious and ethnic minorities.

The Observatory said Syrian army helicopters bombed the town of Talbiseh, in the central province of Homs, killing at least 14 people, five under the age of 18. The Local Coordination Committees said the attacks targeted a makeshift hospital and a bakery.

Reports by anti-regime activists about a government airstrike Sunday in the rebel-held central town of Halfaya that killed scores of people also cast pall over Mr. Brahimi’s visit.

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