Damascus, (AFP) – Warplanes unleashed a wave of raids in Syria’s north on Tuesday, bidding to dislodge rebels whose seizure of a key highway has prevented reinforcements from reaching main battleground city Aleppo.
Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi issued an appeal for a ceasefire during the upcoming Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, meanwhile, as he travelled to Cairo to thrash out a possible solution to the conflict.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the morning air raids around Maaret al-Numan were the “most violent” since insurgents captured the strategic town last week.
The warplanes targeted a rebel blockade of the highway to second city Aleppo, theatre of intense fighting for the past three months, it said, adding that insurgents responded with anti-aircraft fire.
Maaret al-Numan is strategically located in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Army shelling of the nearby town of Kafr Nabal killed two children, said the Observatory, adding that at least 14 more people died in violence across Syria on Tuesday.
A citizen journalist in the town said the children were killed by an air strike on their home.
“Usually, warplanes overfly Kafr Nabal for a while before the air strikes begin,” but “this time, the fighter jet bombarded the town without warning,” said the journalist who identified himself as Raed Fares.
As it tries to subdue the insurgency in the north, the army is battling rebels at Eastern Ghuta, in the countryside outside Damascus.
Brahimi, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, called for a ceasefire as the revolt entered its 20th month with a death toll of more than 33,000.
He made his call as he shuttled between Syria’s neighbours, bitterly divided by the conflict along the confessional lines that have traditionally riven the Islamic world.
The veteran troubleshooter visited Shiite-majority Iraq after talks in Shiite-ruled Iran, closest ally of the minority Alawite-dominated regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Last week, Brahimi visited Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the two Sunni-led states which have been the greatest champions of Syria’s opposition. And on Tuesday he was in Cairo to meet Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi.
“Brahimi has appealed to the Iranian authorities to assist in achieving a ceasefire in Syria during the forthcoming Eid al-Adha, one of the holiest holidays celebrated by the Muslims around the world,” his office said.
Eid al-Adha, which falls at the end of October, marks the climax of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
“He reiterated the call by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for a ceasefire and a halt to the flow of arms to both sides. A ceasefire, he said, would help create an environment that would allow a political process to develop.”
The escalation in Idlib province, which borders Turkey, came as a senior US official visited Ankara for talks on the conflict in Syria amid heightened tensions between the two neighbours.
“We continue to consult with our partners in the region including Turkey on a variety of issues related to Syria,” US embassy spokesman in Ankara T.J. Grubisha told AFP.
Tensions between Syria and Turkey have soared as Ankara and Damascus banned flights between the two countries after Ankara confiscated a cargo of radar equipment from a Syrian flight from Moscow last week.
On October 3, five Turkish civilians were killed by cross-border fire against the rebels that Syria charges are receiving arms from Gulf Arab states through Turkey.
The United States on Monday called on all Syria’s neighbours to monitor their airspace carefully.
“Certainly we support the decision that Turkey has made in light of the apparent violation of their airspace by this aircraft,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
“We are encouraging all of Syria’s neighbours to be vigilant with regard to how their airspace is used, particularly now that we have this concrete example.”
Meanwhile the European Union imposed a new package of unilateral sanctions on Damascus on Monday, its 19th since the conflict erupted in March 2011.
But Western and European leaders still face an uphill task in getting key Assad allies Russia and China on board. Both have repeatedly blocked action at the UN Security Council against Assad’s regime.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Monday: “I can’t say that we made any progress.”