Last Updated: Tue Mar 20, 2012 14:48 pm (KSA) 11:48 am (GMT)

Fighting rages in Syria amid conflicting reports over deployment of Russian forces

Russia claims its oil tanker has been in the Syrian port of Tartus only to provide logistical aid to ships of the Black Sea fleet and to secure the waters against pirates. (File photo)
Russia claims its oil tanker has been in the Syrian port of Tartus only to provide logistical aid to ships of the Black Sea fleet and to secure the waters against pirates. (File photo)

Russia has added its voice to growing calls for a humanitarian truce in Syria, a move hailed by the U.S. after deadly clashes rocked a district of the capital near the heart of the embattled regime, as fighting continued in heavily guarded areas of Damascus.

Meanwhile, reports conflicted on the deployment of Russian special forces in Syria.

Russian defense ministry denied in a statement the presence of Russian warships in the Syrian regional waters. The statement said that an oil tanker has been in the Syrian port of Tartus over the past ten days for the purpose of providing logistic services to the ships of the Black Sea fleet, and securing the Gulf of Aden against piracy attacks.

No Russian special forces in Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Serie Lavrov

“I don’t see any contradiction in the statements of the Russian Navy and the defense ministry,” Russian Foreign Minister Serie Lavrov told Al Arabiya when asked about the conflicting reports.

“As the defense ministry said, it is an oil tanker. We don’t have any warships in the Syrian regional waters. There are no Russian special forces aboard the oil tanker…but we should be aware that aboard these kinds of tankers, there is always a force to protect it against any attack. Ships of the Black Sea fleet are operating within the framework of an international plan for anti-piracy,” Lavrov said.

The defense ministry statement has said that the crew of the tanker Iman is made up of civilians and a unit that provides for its security.

The statement by the defense ministry contradicts with earlier statements by a source at the Russian Navy, reported by Interfax and Russia News, about the deployment of Russian unit of anti-terror marines to the Syrian port of Tartus aboard of an oil tanker. The news were confirmed to Al Arabiya by Syrian opposition forces.

Tartus is the only base used by Russia, a longtime ally of Syria’s regime, in the Mediterranean.

Fighting continues

Meanwhile, President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces launched attacks in several regions, opposition activists said.

Syrian tanks bombarded major districts of Hama on Tuesday in an attempt to dislodge Free Syrian Army rebels who resumed operations in the city after several army assaults to subdue its population, opposition sources said.

The barrage, mainly with mortar rounds and heavy machineguns, concentrated on the central Hamidiya neighborhood, the target of overnight raids to apprehend rebels who had taken refuge there, as well as Bab Qibli in the western sector of the city, the sources said.

Hama has been a hotbed of a year-old popular uprising against Assad.

Pre-dawn fighting in a heavily guarded area of Damascus, the capital’s fiercest since the revolt against Assad’s regime erupted, came as residents still reeled from deadly weekend bombings.

At least three rebels and a member of the security forces were killed in the upscale western neighborhood of Mazzeh, state television and monitors said.

“Three terrorists were killed and a fourth was arrested in the fighting between security forces and an armed terrorist gang sheltered in a house of a residential district,” the TV reported.

Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said four rebels were killed.

Mourtada Rasheed, an activist in Damascus, said blasts and heavy shooting could be heard in Mazzeh and two other districts -- Qaboon and Arbeen, according to AFP.

In Mazzeh, overlooked by Assad’s cliff-top presidential palace and home to several embassies, terrified locals were awakened before dawn by the rattle of gunfire.

In a new sign of the diplomatic urgency over Syria, the Security Council is negotiating a press statement proposed by Russia condemning the bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo at the weekend.

Araud said the presidential statement is “very limited” to Annan’s mission in a bid to reduce any potential opposition.

In Russia, International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger met Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whose country is an ally of Damascus and has some influence on the regime.

“The two parties call for the Syrian government and armed groups to immediately agree to a daily humanitarian truce to allow the ICRC access to the wounded and to civilians who need to be evacuated,” the foreign ministry said.

Moscow “underscored the need to allow the ICRC access to all detained persons in Syria following the protests” against Assad’s regime.

The United States welcomed what it saw as a change in the Russian stance.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters that she noticed “an evolution in the Russian public position” on Syria, saying recent comments by Moscow were “good steps.”

Annan’s mission in Syria

Meanwhile, a mission sent by former U.N. secretary general Annan arrived in Damascus for talks on a monitoring operation to end the conflict.

“There are five people with expertise in political, peacekeeping and mediation,” Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AFP.

“They will be staying for as long as they are making progress on reaching agreement on practical steps to implement Mr Annan’s proposals,” he added.

The Annan proposal includes a halt to the violence, humanitarian access, the release of detainees held over the past year and withdrawal of security forces from protest cities.

As a condition for ceasefire talks, the Damascus government insisted that the opposition had to lay down its arms, diplomats at the United Nations said.

At the same time, neighboring countries had to guarantee they would not send weapons to Syrian groups or give political or financial support to the opposition, they told AFP.

Separately, technical experts from the U.N. and Organization of Islamic Cooperation are taking part in a Syrian government-led mission to assess the impact of the deadly crackdown.

The mission to 15 cities, on the first such assignment in Syria since the violence started, was launched in Homs on Sunday.

Monday’s clashes in the capital came after twin car bombs ripped through two neighborhoods of Damascus on Saturday, killing 27 people, according to an interior ministry toll.

Outside of Damascus troops backed by dozens of tanks raided districts of Deir al-Zor city in eastern Syria, the Observatory said.

And troops bombarded the Bab Sbaa, Khalidiyeh and Karm al-Shami districts of Homs, the monitoring group said.

Troops in the northwestern province of Idlib attacked Abdita, home village of defector Colonel Riyadh Asaad, head of the Turkey-based rebel Free Syrian Army, local activist Nurredin al-Abdo told AFP.

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