Muslim leaders leave Assad out in the cold

Government airstrikes in Syria on a neighbourhood in a rebel-held town has killed over 40 people and wounded at least 100, says Human Rights Watch.

Government airstrikes in Syria on a neighbourhood in a rebel-held town has killed over 40 people and wounded at least 100, says Human Rights Watch.

But there was little support for direct military involvement in Syria at a summit of Muslim leaders in Mecca.

Summit host Saudi Arabia has led Arab efforts to isolate Syria diplomatically and has also backed calls for the Syrian rebel opposition to be armed, which Foreign Minister Saud al-Fasial described in February as "an excellent idea".

But speaking to reporters after the summit, OIC secretary general Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said he "did not see much support for external military intervention" in Syria during the summit.

He described the decision to suspend Syrian membership as "a message to the international community ... that the Islamic community stands with a politically peaceful solution and does not want any more bloodshed".

The 57-member body's rebuke is mostly symbolic, but it shows Syria's isolation – as well as that of its ally Iran – across much of the Sunni-majority Islamic world.

Defence
The summit, which has taken place late on consecutive nights because of the Ramadan fast, had been billed as a diplomatic showdown between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, which have backed different sides in sectarian conflicts in the region.

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticised Syria's suspension as he left Mecca early on Thursday, saying it was contrary to the organisation's charter.

"Before taking this decision it is necessary to invite the Syrian government to the meeting so that it can defend itself and so that participants can listen to its official views," the official news agency, IRNA, reported him as saying.

Saudi King Abdullah tried to conciliate Iran at the summit opening by placing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at his side to welcome Muslim leaders in a gesture Saudi political analysts said was aimed at putting old grievances aside in the quest for a resolution to the Syrian crisis.

He also suggested founding a centre for dialogue between Islam's sects, another move aimed at trying to defuse some of the region's sectarian tensions. That proposal was adopted by the summit.

Airstrikes
Meanwhile, government airstrikes in Syria on a neighbourhood in a rebel-held town has killed over 40 people and wounded at least 100, said Human Rights Watch on Thursday.

The strikes on the town of Azaz in northern Syria a day earlier levelled the better part of a poor neighbourhood and sent panicked civilians fleeing for cover.
So many were wounded that the local hospital locked its doors, directing residents to drive to the nearby Turkish border so the injured could be treated on the other side.

Reporters saw nine bodies in the bombings' immediate aftermath, including one of a baby.

Human Rights Watch, which investigated the site of the bombing two hours after the attack, put the number at over 40.

"This horrific attack killed and wounded scores of civilians and destroyed a whole residential block," said Anna Neistat, the group's acting emergencies director. "Yet again, Syrian government forces attacked with callous disregard for civilian life."

The international body said two opposition Free Syrian Army facilities in the vicinity of the attack might have been targets of the Syrian aircraft.

One was the headquarters of the local Free Syrian Army brigade two streets away from the block that was hit. The other was a detention facility where the Free Syrian Army held "security detainees" – government military personnel and members of pro-government shabiha militia. Neither of these facilities was damaged in the attack.

Control
The bombing of Azaz, about 50km north of Aleppo, shattered the sense of control rebels have sought to project since they took the area from President Bashar al-Assad's army last month. Azaz is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shi'ites they captured in May. On Wednesday, Lebanese media reported conflicting reports on their fate, but it was unclear whether they had been affected by the bombing.

In recent months, rebels have pushed the Syrian army from a number of towns in a swath of territory south of the Turkish border and north of Aleppo, Syria's largest city. About a dozen destroyed tanks and army vehicles are scattered around Azaz, left over from those battles.

As the Assad regime's grip on the ground slips, however, it is increasingly targeting rebel areas with attack helicopters and fighter jets – weapons the rebels can't challenge.

Also on Thursday, state-run TV said government troops freed three journalists who were seized last week by rebels while covering violence in a Damascus suburb.

Syria TV says the three journalists from the pro-regime TV station Al-Ikhbariya were freed in a "qualitative operation" on Thursday in the town of al-Tal just north of the capital. It did not provide further details.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the Al-Ikhbariya team was freed, amid heavy shelling on al-Tal. The group relies on a network of activists on the ground. – Sapa-AP, Reuters

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