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US takes aim at Iran and Russia over Syria
by Staff Writers
Damascus (AFP) Feb 2, 2013

Germany security talks begin with Syria, Mali in focus
Munich, Germany (AFP) Feb 01, 2013 - High-level officials, ministers and top military brass gathered at the Munich Security Conference Friday with Syria in the spotlight and amid a US warning to Iran over stalled nuclear talks.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who is due to attend the Munich talks on Saturday, began a three-nation European tour cautioning Iran that the opportunity for talks with the West over Tehran's contested nuclear programme was not open-ended.

Freshly re-inaugurated Biden, who earlier Friday met Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, will in Munich turn his attentions to Syria amid fears the conflict may spill over the country's borders.

He is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Syrian opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib, and also see UN-Arab League envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in the southern German city, the White House said.

Outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Iran is stepping up its support for the Syrian regime and that Russia is still arming it, heightening concerns after Damascus threatened to retaliate over a reported Israeli air raid.

"What we would like to see from other countries, including Russia, is an acknowledgement that (Syrian President) Bashar al-Assad must go and that there needs to be a transition within Syria to a new government," said Ben Rhodes, a White House national security adviser.

Brahimi and Khatib take part in late-night talks on Syria in Munich Friday but discussions on Europe's financial crisis and energy issues provided the opening talking points.

"The euro crisis is not over but we are very much better off than a year ago. We are on the right path to abate this crisis, to advance step by step," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told a panel.

But he warned against taking the foot off the pedal and forgetting lessons learned from the crisis.

NATO's plan to withdraw the bulk of its 100,000 combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 as well as developments in the Muslim and Arab world two years after the Arab Spring revolts are also set to be themes here.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi is expected to attend the Munich talks as well as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the so-called P5+1 group of the United States, China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany in talks on Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"President (Barack) Obama has made clear that containment is not an option. We will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon," Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily quoted Biden as saying.

"We think there is time and space for diplomacy -- accompanied with economic pressure. But this window will not be open for an unlimited time," he said in remarks published in German.

"We are continuing with the P5+1 group to work for a diplomatic solution and we have said from the beginning that we are prepared to hold a bilateral meeting," Biden, who also attended the Munich conference in 2009, said.

Iran and the six world powers held three rounds of talks last year aimed at easing the standoff over Iran's nuclear activities, which Tehran insists are entirely peaceful, but the last round ended in stalemate in June in Moscow.

Another round of talks was initially expected to be held in December or January but a date and a location have still not been set amid indications that neither side is prepared to change substantially its position.

Mali, where French President Francois Hollande will visit on Saturday after France launched an offensive on January 11 against Islamists who had ruled the country's north for months, is also expected to focus minds.

US officials said Iran is stepping up its support for the Syrian regime and that Russia is still arming it while Israel has fired missiles into the country, heightening fears that the conflict may spill over Syria's borders.

The assessments came as US Vice President Joe Biden prepared to discuss the crisis at meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Syrian opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib and UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Fresh concerns about the 22-month conflict drawing in the wider region arose after Damascus threatened to retaliate over a reported Israeli air raid and key ally Iran warned the attack would have "grave consequences."

President Bashar al-Assad's regime accused Israel of sending its warplanes to attack a military research centre in Jamraya, near Damascus, on Wednesday.

Israel has so far maintained a stony silence, as well as over separate reports its aircraft had hit a weapons convoy near the Lebanese border.

However a US official said Friday that an Israeli air raid in Syria this week struck surface-to-air missiles and a nearby military complex on the outskirts of Damascus, as Israel feared the weapons would be transferred to Hezbollah.

"There were surface-to-air missiles on vehicles" that were targeted by the Israel aircraft, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

They were believed to be Russian-made SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles, he added.

The planes also bombed an adjacent military complex of buildings suspected of housing chemical agents, the official said.

Israel has frequently warned that if Syria's chemical weapons fall into the hands of Lebanon's Shiite movement Hezbollah, Israel's arch-foe and close Damascus ally, this would be a casus belli.

The United States is also concerned that "chaos" in Syria could allow Hezbollah to obtain sophisticated weapons from the Damascus regime, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told AFP in an interview.

The Lebanese army, meanwhile, said two soldiers were killed in a clash with unidentified gunmen in a village near the border with Syria on Friday as the military hunted a man wanted for "several terrorist attacks".

After Wednesday's alleged air strike, Damascus affirmed "Syria's right to defend itself and its territory and sovereignty."

Damascus ally Iran was also strident, with Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian warning that the "Zionist regime's attack on the outskirts of Damascus will have grave consequences for Tel Aviv," ISNA news agency reported.

Russia expressed "deep concern" over the reported strike, saying it would be a brazen infringement of the UN charter and unacceptable.

-- Dangers of proxy war --


UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on all parties to "prevent tensions or their escalation in the region," as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned of "the dangers of an increasing civil war and a potential proxy war."

"The worst kind of predictions of what could happen, both internally and spilling over the borders of Syria, are certainly within the realm of the possible now," she said on Friday, her last day in office.

"The Iranians have made it clear for some time that keeping Assad in power was one of their highest priorities. We believe they have acted on that by sending in more personnel, not only to help Assad, but to support and advise military security forces."

She also noted Russia was propping up the Damascus regime despite US efforts to work for an international solution to a conflict the UN says has cost more than 60,000 lives.

"We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment to Assad."

Biden is to meet Lavrov and Khatib on Saturday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Khatib was to hold late-night talks on Friday with Brahimi.

In Geneva, the UN's children's agency said some 420,000 people -- half of them children -- in the central region of Homs desperately need humanitarian aid.

And head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, urged all sides of the Syrian conflict to help his organisation access more of the war-ravaged country with desperately needed aid, in an interview with AFP.

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees said the conflict in Syria has displaced half of the country's 500,000 Palestinian refugees.

On the ground, clashes between soldiers and rebels broke out in southern Damascus on Friday, while army shelling hit a town in northern Aleppo province and Homs city was also pounded, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The monitoring group, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground, said at least 80 people, 32 of them soldiers, were killed in violence across the country.

In the weekly anti-regime protests, demonstrators took to the streets on Friday under the slogan: "The international community is an accomplice of Assad's crimes."

"We will bring Assad to justice no matter what lives it takes, no matter how much catastrophe it makes," one banner read at a town in the Idlib region of northwest Syria.

Fifty-three people were killed in a January 24 suicide car bombing at a Syrian military intelligence headquarters in Damascus province carried out by Islamist rebel fighters, according to the Observatory.



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