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Ben Quinn, Saturday 4th August 2012 16:42
Welcome to Middle East Live, with a focus on Syria, where the battle for the country's largest city of Aleppo appears to be reaching a decisive phase.
Fresh clashes have also been reported in the capital, Damascus, despite a major push by regime forces in districts where rebels have been operating.
The search for a coherent international response to the crisis is meanwhile continuing following the resignation of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan and the failure of his six-point peace plan.
China says it is the West that should be blamed for obstructing diplomatic and political efforts to restore order and peace in Syria, the Associated Press news agency reports.
The US and other nations have criticized China and Russia for using their veto power at the UN security council to block strong Western- and Arab-backed action against President Bashar Assad.
But Wang Kejian, a deputy director of north African and west Asian affairs at the Chinese Foreign Ministry, told a news conference Saturday that some Western countries had hindered and sabotaged the political process by advocating regime change.
Wang reiterated China's stance that the solution to the Syria crisis should be a political one and its opposition to any military intervention.
Syrian government forces have clashed with rebels around Aleppo's television and radio station today, according to activists who have been speaking to Reuters.
One told the news agency that the rebels had sought to extend their area of control from the Salaheddine district, where the most intense fighting has been focused, northwards to the area around the television and radio station.
"The Free Syria Army pushed from Salaheddine to al-Adhamiya where they clashed this morning with Syrian troops. But they had to retreat," said activist Barraa al-Halabi.
A 19-year-old fighter called Mu'awiya al-Halabi, who was at the scene said Syrian snipers surrounded the station and targeted the rebels.
"We were inside it for a few hours after clashes with the Syrian army but the Syrian army sent snipers and surrounded the TV station and as soon as morning came, the army started shooting. One of our fighters was martyred and four were wounded," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said 110 people had been killed on Friday, including 88 civilians, also confirmed the clash near the television and radio station. It said the terrestrial signal for Syrian television in Aleppo had been cut off.
Kofi Annan, who has resigned as the UN and Arab League special envoy on Syria, has been the target of much criticism recently.
Peter Beaumont, the Observer's foreign affairs editor, has been taking a look at the background to Annan's efforts however and says that he has been ill-supported by both Russia and the US, "who have preferred posturing to genuine negotiation".
That was sharply dramatised by the blunderbuss dilomacy of both Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton at the UN meeting on Syria on June 30th, where the two powers could not even agree on the most basic parsing of the communique that they had spent a day discussing, with Clinton arguing that it meant "Assad must go" and Lavrov immediately disputing that.
It is precisely this that Annan means when he referred on Thursday to the continued "finger-pointing and name-calling in the security council."
It is perhaps apocryphal - and this correspondent did not hear it himself at the meeting - but a colleague insists he overheard Clinton in an aside insisting to Lavrov as they left one of the closed sessions that he should desist from "contradicting her".
Whether it is true or not, it does reflect a resentment in some quarters - not least in Moscow - over Clinton's personal style as Secretary of State, which has seemed to some less diplomatic than abrasive and uncompromising.
The reality is that on all sides the players in Syria's agony have been more interested in their own agendas than in brigning an end to the bloodshed and civilian suffering.
Iran has test fired a new short-range missile equipped with a guidance system it plans to install on all future missiles it builds, the country's Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) has reported.
Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi was quoted as saying: "With the fourth-generation of the Fateh 110, the armed forces of our country are able to target and destroy land and sea targets, enemy headquarters ... missile seats, ammunition sites, radars and other points."
The Fateh 110 has a range of around 300 km (180 miles), IRNA said, meaning it would only be able to strike Iran's immediate neighbours.
In Saudi Arabia, a soldier and a gunman were killed late yesterday in an area populated by minority Shi'ite Muslims, according to reports coming through today.
The deaths bring to 11 the number of people killed in the Qatif area since November in protests by members of Saudi Arabia's Shi'ite minority over what they see as entrenched discrimination, according to Reuters.
"A security patrol was exposed to heavy fire from four armed rioters on motorbikes when pausing at a street intersection in Qatif," state news agency SPA reported, quoting Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour Turki.
Aerial operations against rebels in Syria's largest city appear to have resumed, according to this tweet from Sky News:
Sky Correspondent: MiG fighter jets attacking Free Syrian Army positions in northern Aleppo
— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) August 4, 2012
On the diplomatic front, China has been hitting back at criticism of its position on Syria following a vote at the United Nations which overwhelmingly condemned the Syrian government.
Wang Kejian, deputy head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's West Asian and North African Affairs Department, reiterating China's opposition to an external intervention.
"We should not easily close the window to a political solution let alone start military intervention," Wang said in a press conference earlier today in Beijing.
He was speaking after a special session of the 193-nation UN General Assembly on Friday approved a Saudi-drafted resolution which expressed "grave concern" at the escalation of violence in Syria and condemned the security council for its inaction.
Russia was among the 12 countries that opposed the resolution in the assembly while others that voted against it included China, Iran, North Korea, Belarus and Cuba.
France has meanwhile said that it use its presidency of the UN security council to push for humanitarian aid for the Syrian, according to the Agence France Presse news agency.
The French ambassador to the UN warned earlier today on Europe 1 radio that Russian and Chinese intransigence could lead to "a final disaster"
A Syrian television presenter who was kidnapped from his Damascus home in mid-July has been executed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Al Nusra, a little-known militant group, claimed the kidnapping and execution of Mohammed Al Saeed in a statement.
The Observatory's Rami Abdel Rahman told the AFP news agency today: "The television presenter, a well-known figure on state TV, has been executed, and the Al Nusra Front has claimed responsibility for the killing."
Last month, international media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on Saeed's kidnapping, and urged his captors to release him.
"News media and journalists – both professional and citizen journalists – should not be targeted by any of the parties in a war or civil war," it said at the time.
Far from there being a lull in fighting in Damascus, heavy explosions shook the Syrian capital today and helicopters circled overhead as rebels appeared to be renewing their offensive in the city, reports the Associated Press.
The fresh battles show that President Bashar Assad's victories could be fleeting as armed opposition groups regroup and resurge, possibly forcing the regime to shuffle military units to react to attacks across the country. The country's civil war has intensified in recent weeks as rebels focused on the country's two biggest cities, Damascus and Aleppo.
"We heard heavy bombing since dawn," a witness in Damascus told The Associated Press, asking that his name not be used out of fear for his personal safety. "Helicopters are in the sky."
Saturday's violence comes only two weeks after the government crushed a rebel run on Damascus that included incursions by fighters into downtown neighborhoods and an audacious bomb attack that killed four members of Assad's inner circle.
The fighting in Damascus appeared likely to drain the army's resources as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo, 350 kilometers (215 miles) to the north.
Late Friday, Syria's official news agency SANA said government forces had hunted down the remnants of the "terrorist mercenaries" its term for the rebels in the capital's southern neighborhood of Tadamon.
The arming of Syria's rebels will have "very bad implications in the region," Iran's Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi warned today, according to state television.
The AFP news agency said that he added that "the region will face a major crisis if foreign forces, currently (covertly) present in Syria, enter the scene" and intervene militarily.
Unverified video (below) obtained from social media is said to show the bombardment of Syrian cities on Friday.
MiG fighter jets are seen over Aleppo, and the damage of shelling is seen in Damascus, Hama and Homs.
48 Iranians have been kidnapped while on a pilgrimage in Damascus, Iran's state news agency reports.
The pilgrims were seized by "armed groups" on the Damascus airport road as they returned from a religious shrine, according to the IRNA, which cited an official in the Islamic republic's embassy in Damascus.
The source added that Iran is pursuing "relevant channels" for the pilgrims' release.
The Palestinians will next month renew a bid to upgrade their status at the United Nations, according to the Palestinian foreign minister, Riad al-Malki.
The Palestinians are listed as a UN observer "entity" with no voting rights. They will ask to be made a non-member observer state at the UN General Assembly on September 27, Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Reuters reports that Malki said President Mahmoud Abbas would make the status request in a speech and the Palestinians would then lobby for support among UN member states.
"When we are sure we have won absolute support from the largest possible number of states, we will be ready to request that the General Assembly vote on such a draft resolution," he added.
Hamcho, whose father is under US and EU sanctions for supporting the regime of Bashar Assad, competed earlier today in the show jumping individual qualifier.
According to Press Association, the 19-year-old urged the protestors to be "proud" of Syrian athletes at London 2012.
"For sure, I feel bad, it's my country," he said.
"I am here to represent Syria, no-one else. I represent only my country, and they (demonstrators) should be proud of the athletes who are representing Syria.
He added: "I have no comment on politics."
Martin Chulov has filed a dispatch for the Observer from Aleppo, where he says that clashes have been taking place near once impregnable pillars of state control. Here's a snatch:
Rebel forces have advanced from the north-east and were on Saturday trying to dislodge loyalists who were fighting them on the approaches to the Maysaloon district.
Capturing this would open access roads to the city centre, where the fighting flared on Saturday.
It would also, potentially, open a way for rebels, who maintain a foothold in the south-west of the city, to link up with the new arrivals.
Rebel groups say they plan to target the air force intelligence headquarters, among the most feared authorities in Syria's extensive security apparatus.
Many of the Aleppo-based rebels claim to have spent time in the building's solitary cells and torture rooms.
"We are saving the tank shells we have for when we get access to the Air Force intelligence headquarters," said Mohammed Karim, from the rebel-held town of Azaz.
"We will free the prisoners first, then destroy the building."
Other fighters said getting a foothold in the heart of the city would be difficult. "It could be another three to six months," said Hussein Shmaili, a police captain who defected.
As we wrap this blog up now, here is a recap on developments over the course of today:
• Fighting appears to be intensifying in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, where Syrian government forces have shelled rebel positions and fired on them from the air.
Rebel groups claim that, after two weeks of bitter fighting, the city of almost 2.5 million people and linchpin of regime authority is almost within their reach.
• Renewed fighting has erupted in the Syrian capital, Damascus, after government forces stormed a rebel-held district in the southern edge of the city.
As heavy explosions shook city and helicopters circled overhead, the fighting appeared likely to drain the resources of government forces as fighting stretches into its second week in Aleppo.
• Forty-eight Iranians have been kidnapped while on a pilgrimage in the Syrian capital Damascus, the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported.
The group was seized by "armed groups" on the Damascus airport road as they returned from a religious shrine, IRNA quoted an unnamed official in Iran's embassy in Damascus as saying.
• A day after a vote by the UN general assembly to criticise the security council for failing to act on Syria, China said it is the West that should be blamed for obstructing diplomatic and political efforts to restore order and peace.
The US and other states have criticized China and Russia for using their veto power at the UN security council to block strong Western- and Arab-backed action against President Bashar Assad.