DAMASCUS – The Syrian government on Saturday welcomed the naming of a former Algerian diplomat as the U.N.'s new point-man in efforts to halt the country's escalating civil war. Activists reported more shelling by regime troops, including an air attack on a northern border town where scores died earlier this week.
In a statement, the office of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa not only expressed support for Lakhdar Brahimi, it also denied reports circulating in Arab media that al-Sharaa had defected to the opposition.
Al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country," the statement said.
The vice president's cousin Yaroub, a colonel in the military defected to the opposition earlier this month, appearing on the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV. The regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, though his inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.
The highest-ranking political defector so far, Assad's former prime minister Riad Hijab, has gone to Qatar where he may reveal his future plans, according to Syrian rebels and a relative of Hijab. Qatar is among a group of Gulf Arab nations that have backed the rebellion against Assad.
The new U.N. envoy, Brahimi, takes over from former Secretary-General Kofi Annan who is stepping down on Aug. 31 after his attempts to broker a cease-fire failed. His appointment comes as U.N. observers have begun leaving Syria, with their mission officially over at the end of Sunday. Their deployment earlier this year had been one of the only concrete achievements in Annan's peace attempts. The observers had been intended to watch over a cease-fire, but no truce ever took hold.
Al-Sharaa's office said the vice president "supports Brahimi's demand to get united support from the Security Council to carry out his mission without obstacles."
In new violence Saturday, regime airstrikes and shelling his rebel areas across the country, including the southern province of Daraa, the northern region of Aleppo, Deir el-Zour to the east and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, activists said. Activists said at least 15 people were killed in the Deir el-Zour area.
One air raid hit the northern town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. There was no immediate word on casualties. Earlier this week, an airstrike on Azaz killed more than 40 people and wounded at least 100, according to international watchdog Human Rights Watch, whose team visited the site.
Azaz, which is home to around 35,000 people, is also the town where rebels have been holding 11 Lebanese Shiites captured in May.
Also Saturday, 40 bodies were found piled on a street in the Damascus suburb of al-Tal, according to the Observatory and another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees. The suburb saw days of heavy fighting until regime forces largely took over the area earlier this week.
The 40 had all been killed by bullet wounds, but their identity was not known, nor was it known who had killed them, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, the head of the Observatory.
"It is not clear if they were civilians, army defectors or soldiers," he said. Also unclear was whether they had been killed at the place where the bodies were found or if residents had collected the bodies there.
In Damascus, a U.N. spokeswoman said the last of the organization's observers still in Syria have started to leave the country ahead of the official end of their mission at midnight Sunday. There are about 100 observers left in Syria -- a third of the number at the peak of the mission earlier this year.
Most will leave within hours, though some could be delayed by logistics, Juliette Touma told The Associated Press.
The Security Council agreed this week to end the U.N. mission and back a small new liaison office that will support any future peace efforts.
Lt. Gen. Babacar Gaye, head of U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria, said that who stays and leaves is not important, but "what is important is that the United Nations will stay." He said the U.N. is committed to ending violence and triggering dialogue between the Parties.
Babacar urged Syrian parties to stop the violence "that is causing such suffering to the innocent people of Syria."
"Those parties have obligations under international humanitarian law to ensure that civilians are protected. These obligations have not been respected." Babacar told reporters in Damascus.
A series of hostage-takings by Syria's rebels has touched off retaliatory abductions of Syrians in neighboring Lebanon and raised worries Lebanon could be dragged deeper into unrest.
Lebanese security officials said Saturday that five more Syrians were abducted in Beirut's southern suburbs overnight. It was not clear who carried out the latest abductions, but earlier kidnappings were carried out by the al-Mikdad clan, a powerful Shiite Muslim family in Leabanon.
The al-Mikdad clan says it has snatched a number of Syrians and a Turk in Lebanon in retaliation for the abduction of their relative, Hassane Salim al-Mikdad, by rebels in Syria.