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Beirut — Heavy fighting shook the Syrian city of Aleppo Thursday as the exiled opposition chief said for the first time that President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster need not be a pre-condition for peace talks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said meanwhile that “military pressure” may be needed to oust Assad, as Moscow announced it would host a fresh round of peace talks next month.
An attack targeting leaders of the jihadist al-Nusra Front killed several leaders of the al-Qaeda affiliate in the northwestern province of Idlib, a monitoring group said.
Aleppo, Syria’s second city, saw fierce clashes between regime forces and rebels near an air force intelligence headquarters that the opposition tried to seize in a spectacular attack on Wednesday.
The attack, which began with a powerful explosives blast in a tunnel dug near the building, left at least 20 members of regime security forces and 14 rebels dead.
A Syrian military source told AFP the army had on Thursday launched an attack “against (rebel) gunmen positions” in the area, “killing and wounding many of them.”
Regime forces also struck rebel-held territory in the east of the city, killing at least 22 civilians, including three children, in a single barrel bomb attack, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group.
Aleppo has been hit by significant violence this week after the opposition rejected a UN plan for a temporary ceasefire in the divided and devastated city, once Syria’s main commercial hub.
A UN delegation was in the city to push a plan for a temporary “freeze” of fighting in Aleppo which was rejected by the opposition on Sunday — part of a range of efforts to resolve a conflict that has left more than 220,000 dead since March 2011.
Speaking to AFP in Paris, opposition National Coalition chief Khaled Khoja said a “new strategy” was needed and that while Assad’s overthrow was still the final aim, it was not necessary for the start of a process to end Syria’s conflict.
“We insist on the goal of toppling Assad and the security services... It is not necessary to have these conditions at the beginning of the process, but it is... necessary to end the process with a new regime and a new free Syria,” he said.
Khoja also softened the coalition’s previous refusal to work with Damascus-tolerated opposition groups, saying he wants “a common ground” with other dissidents and to “establish a new framework for the Syrian opposition.”
The country’s main domestic opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), said Khoja’s comments marked a welcome change.
“Any statement calling for the unification of the opposition is certainly positive, but concrete actions and effective positions are more important,” NCCDC spokesman Monzer Khaddam said.
He also praised the Coalition for being prepared to drop its pre-condition for Assad to step down, saying the issue had been raised in joint opposition talks in Paris two weeks ago.
“We tried in Paris to convince them that all pre-conditions in no way help in finding a political solution in Syria,” Khaddam said.
Moscow meanwhile said it would host talks between representatives of Assad’s regime and opposition figures in April, three months after a meeting between the parties ended without any concrete results.
In Saudi Arabia to meet with Gulf allies, Kerry upped pressure on Assad to negotiate, saying he had “lost any semblance of legitimacy” and raising the possibility of military pressure.
“Ultimately a combination of diplomacy and pressure will be needed to bring about a political transition. Military pressure particularly may be necessary given President Assad’s reluctance to negotiate seriously,” Kerry said in Riyadh.
The violence this week in Aleppo has dampened hopes of a ceasefire in the city, where UN envoy to the Syrian conflict Staffan de Mistura has been seeking a halt to fighting as a first step towards humanitarian aid deliveries in the area and a broader political deal.
Samir Nashar, a member of the National Coalition who is in contact with groups who attacked the regime building, said Wednesday’s assault “sends a clear message to the regime and to De Mistura” that the rebels reject his initiative.

Murray banks on home boost in USA Davis Cup tie

Friday, 06 March 2015 00:00 Published in Sports

TOUGH BATTLE AHEAD

Andy Murray said on Wednesday that the support of the Glasgow crowd could give Great Britain the edge in this weekend's Davis Cup World Group tie against the United States.
The world number five helped his team to a 3-1 victory over the USA at the same stage of last season's tournament and said he was confident of pulling off a repeat in the first-round tie at the Emirates Arena.
"For all of us as a team, getting to play in front of a crowd like this is a great feeling," Murray told a press conference two days before the start of the tie.
"I would say that's the nicest thing about the Davis Cup — when you get a home tie, you get the whole crowd behind you. It's not like that at the tournaments we play throughout the rest of the year.
"To have a crowd turning up just to support you is fantastic and I'm sure the whole team will respond.
"It looks like a great arena, it's a perfect size and if it's packed I am sure they will make a lot of noise.
"It helps in all sports to play in front of a home crowd. There can sometimes be a few nerves early because of it, but once you get through that it makes a big difference and can help a lot."
Murray, a beaten finalist at this year's Australian Open, is the top-ranked player in the tie, but the USA have their leading singles player John Isner available again following an ankle problem.
Murray has suffered two quarter-finals defeats since falling to Novak Djokovic in the Melbourne final, losing to Gilles Simon in Rotterdam and Croatian teenager Borna Coric in Dubai, and he admitted he had missed the support of coach Amelie Mauresmo, who was on Fed Cup duty with France.
"After the Aussie Open, I spent the next three or four weeks with no coach and I feel that's something I obviously need to get sorted so that when I get to the clay court season, I am not in that position," he said.
"Because I feel like there are some things I need to work on all the time and when I don't have somewhere there, it's harder to do that. That's high on my list of priorities."
Murray was dismissive when asked what effect his public declaration of support for Scottish independence in last year's referendum would have on his commitment to the Great Britain team.
"Well, I guess we'll see at the weekend," said the 27-year-old Scot.

US ambassador slashed and bloodied in Seoul attack

Friday, 06 March 2015 00:00 Published in Commentary

Seoul, South Korea — The US ambassador to South Korea, Mark Lippert, was recovering from surgery Thursday after being slashed on his face and arm in Seoul on Thursday by a blade-wielding activist opposed to ongoing US-Korean military drills.
The United States condemned the “act of violence” which left the ambassador bleeding profusely and saw him rushed to hospital where his condition was described as stable after 2 and 1/2 hours of treatment by plastic and orthopedic surgeons.
Witnesses described how a man armed with a 25-centimeter (10-inch) paring knife had lunged across a table and attacked Lippert at a breakfast function in central Seoul.
The assailant, dressed in traditional Korean clothes and identified as Kim Ki-Jong, 55, was immediately wrestled to the ground and taken into police custody.
During the assault, Kim screamed a slogan in favor of reunifying the divided Korean peninsula, and later shouted his opposition to joint US-SKorea military exercises that began on Monday.
He was a known political activist who had been handed a two-year suspended sentence in 2010 for throwing a rock at the then Japanese ambassador to Seoul.
Video footage showed Lippert, 42, being rushed from the breakfast event and bundled into a police car, one hand pressing a cloth to his bleeding right cheek, and his other hand and clothes smeared with blood.
One of the doctors who operated on the ambassador said if the deep cut on his cheek had been just a little lower it might have severed his carotid artery “which would have been life-threatening.”
The hospital said there was some damage to sensory nerves in his right hand which was successfully treated during the surgery.
He was to remain in hospital for three to four days under observation.
The US State Department condemned the “act of violence” and the White House said President Barack Obama had called the ambassador “to tell him that he and his wife Robyn are in his thoughts and prayers, and to wish him the very best for a speedy recovery.”
Lippert was part of Obama’s inner circle during the then senator’s rise to the White House.
He took on senior roles in national security and defense after the 2008 presidential campaign, before becoming ambassador to Seoul in October last year.
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye condemned the “intolerable” assault, saying it was tantamount to an attack on the South Korea-US military alliance.
Park, who is currently on a tour of Gulf states, vowed a “thorough investigation,” while the foreign ministry said it would beef up security for foreign envoys.
A spokesman for the Korea Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation, which hosted the breakfast function, apologised for the lack of security at the event.
“This man suddenly jumped out of his seat when the breakfast was about to start at the table,” the spokesman said.
“Other people tried to stop him but the situation unfolded too quickly,” he added.
Kim runs a small activist group that pushes for reunification with North Korea and regularly organizes protests against Japanese territorial claims to a group of small islands controlled by South Korea.
As he was being taken from the police station for treatment on an injured ankle, Kim told reporters he had been planning the attack for 10 days.
According to intelligence sources cited by the Yonhap news agency, Kim visited North Korea six times between 2006 and 2007 and tried to erect a memorial in Seoul to the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il after his death in late 2011.
Writing on the group’s blog on Tuesday, Kim had complained that the joint US-South Korea drills were blocking dialogue between North and South Korea and preventing reunions for family members divided by the 1950-1953 Korean War.
The annual exercises kicked off earlier this week, triggering a surge in tensions with the North.
Nearly 30,000 US troops are permanently stationed in South Korea and the United States would assume operational command in the event of an armed conflict with the North.
Lippert has proved a popular ambassador, tweeting regularly about his life in Seoul and setting up a tongue-in-cheek Twitter account for his dog, Grigsby.
His wife recently gave birth in Seoul and the couple gave their son a Korean middle name. AFP

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