Battle on Lebanese border as Syria talks falter

Civilians carry their belongings as they walk towards a meeting point to be evacuated from a besieged area of Homs, Feb. 9, 2014.
Syrian warplanes have pounded a rebel-held town near the Lebanese border, as peace talks between the government and opposition continued in Geneva.
The talks have been accompanied by a sharp rise in violence on the ground in Syria. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that at least 4,959 people had died in Syria in the three-week period since January 22, when the first round of talks began in Switzerland.
The group, which documents the fighting on the ground through a wide network of activists, say the period has seen the highest death toll since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad started in March 2011.
The Observatory reported at least 10 air strikes on Yabroud, the last rebel stronghold in Syria\’s mountainous Qalamoun region, on Wednesday. Backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian army has been on a crushing offensive there since early December.
Officials in Arsal, on the Lebanese side of the border, said more than 300 Syrians had crossed the border to escape violence.
Meanwhile, in the central city of Homs, more than 200 civilians were evacuated from besieged rebel-held districts, governor Talal al-Barazi said.
"The operation went well and smoothly," Barazi told the AFP news agency.
A ceasefire in the city was due to expire at midnight on Wednesday. Food aid has been delivered and hundreds of civilians evacuated since Friday, when the UN-brokered humanitarian truce went into effect.
Talks in Geneva between Syria\’s government and opposition continue, despite no sign of progress.
On Wednesday the warring sides held face-to-face meetings for the second consecutive day, as international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi prepared to consult with diplomats from the United States and Russia — the two nations that helped organize the peace talks.
The opposition called Wednesday for creation of a transitional governing body that would oversee a ceasefire under U.N. monitoring. The plan was presented to Brahimi along with Syrian government negotiators.
Opposition spokesman Louay Safi said there was no immediate Syrian government response to the proposal.
Damascus has repeatedly said negotiations must focus first on fighting terrorism, and not creation of a transitional government.
Originally scheduled for Friday, Brahimi\’s talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov and U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman have been moved up to Thursday.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian media quoted Gatilov saying Russia will not support a draft U.N. Security Council resolution on humanitarian aid, saying it is "unacceptable" and crafted as a precursor for military intervention.
U.S. President Barack Obama said in a joint news conference Tuesday with French President Francois Hollande that aside from Russia, there is "great unanimity" among the council on the resolution to give greater access to aid workers.
"Secretary Kerry and others have delivered a very direct message to the Russians that they cannot say that they are concerned about the well-being of the Syrian people when there are starving civilians, and that it is not just the Syrians that are responsible; the Russians, as well, if they are blocking this kind of resolution," Obama said.
The draft measure threatens sanctions against those who obstruct aid deliveries.
Obama said at this point he does not think there is a military solution to the Syrian crisis, but that the situation continues to change and he will explore "every possible avenue."
Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, which each hold veto power. Russia and China have vetoed three previous resolutions that would have pressure President Bashar al-Assad\’s government.
Also Tuesday, U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper described the situation in Syria as an "apocalyptic disaster" that has killed more than 134,000 people and created nearly 10 million refugees.
Clapper told a U.S. Senate committee that U.S. intelligence expectations from the Syrian peace talks are "pretty modest.
Syria\’s civil conflict has claimed more than 100,000 lives since 2011 and has driven 9.5 million people from their homes.
Source: Agencies
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