Syrian regime urges opposition, refugees to return

By Barbara Surk

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 7:02 a.m. MST

In this image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, smoke rises from buildings due to heavy shelling in Daraa, Syria, on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.

Associated Press

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BEIRUT — Twin car bombs in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights have killed eight people, activists said Friday as the government called on those who fled the country during the civil war to return, including regime opponents.

The persistent violence and the moribund peace plan offered by President Bashar Assad — now enforced by his appeal to refugees and political opponents to come back — underlines the intractable nature of the 22-month conflict that has killed more than 60,000 people and left the international community at a loss to find a way to end the bloodshed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two cars packed with explosives blew up near a military intelligence building in the town of Quneitra on Thursday, killing eight. Most of the dead were members of the Syrian military, the Observatory said. The Syrian government has not commented on the attacks.

There was no claim of responsibility for the blasts. Car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Syrian troops and government institutions have been the hallmark of Islamic militants fighting in Syria alongside rebels trying to topple Assad.

Quneitra is on the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, which controls most of the Golan Heights after capturing the strategic territory from Syria in the 1967 war.

Since the conflict began, more than half million Syrians have fled to neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Those who left include opposition activists and defectors, both ordinary soldiers and army officers who switched to the rebel side, which is fighting to topple Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

The state-run SANA news agency said the government will help hundreds of thousands of citizens return whether they left "legally or illegally." Syrian opposition figures abroad who want to take part in reconciliation talks will also be allowed back, according to an Interior Ministry statement carried by SANA late Thursday.

If they "have the desire to participate in the national dialogue, they would be allowed to enter Syria," the ministry said.

The proposed talks are part of Assad's initiative to end the conflict that started as peaceful protests in March 2011 but turned into a civil war. Tens of thousands of activists, their family members and opposition supporters remain jailed by the regime, according to international activist groups.

Opposition leaders, who have repeatedly rejected any talks that include Assad, could not immediately be reached to comment the Syrian regime's latest appeal. The opposition — including the rebels fighting on the ground — insists he must step down. Their demand is backed by the international community, but Assad clings to power, vowing to crush the armed opposition.

Both sides remain convinced they can win militarily, and while Assad's forces maintain control over the capital, the rebels have in recent weeks captured large swaths of territory in the country's north and east, including parts of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its main commercial hub.

Also Friday, regime troops shelled Homs and soldiers battled rebels around the central province with the same name, which was a major frontline during the first year of the revolt. An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs. The sound of heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.

Another video showed thick black and grey smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. "The city of Homs is burning... Day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn't stop," the narrator is heard saying.

Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in towns and villages around the capital. The troops fired artillery shells at several districts, including on Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Observatory.

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