Syria rebels execute soldiers; UN envoy begins tough mission

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi (R) and Vice President Mahmoud Mekky (L) meet with the new UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi (C), at the presidential palace in Cairo September 10, 2012 to find a solution to Syrian crisis. REUTERS/Egyptian Presidency/Handout
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ALEPPO, Syria - Syrian rebels have summarily executed at least 20 soldiers in the embattled northern city of Aleppo, a watchdog said on Monday as peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted he faces a "very difficult" task.

Brahimi made the remarks in Cairo where he launched his first official visit to the region, as delegations from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran also met in Cairo to find a way out of the crisis.

Reports of the executions came as Syrian MiG warplanes blitzed areas of Aleppo, dropping two bombs at a time and then opening up with machinegun fire, an AFP correspondent reported in the afternoon.

Helicopter gunships also flew over the city causing panic on the streets as residents fled for safety, the correspondent said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said at least five people died and an unknown number were hurt when the warplanes staged waves of bombing raids from early morning on the Marjeh, Sakhur, Hanano, Tariq al-Bab and Sheikh Khodr neighborhoods.

The raids came a day after rebels reportedly killed at least 27 people, including soldiers, in an attack on state buildings in a western area of Aleppo.

"Many buildings were destroyed and the rebels used anti-aircraft guns" against the warplanes, said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists on the ground for its information.

"It appears that many soldiers were among the dead, and that there were a number of people who were wounded, some of them seriously," he added.

The official SANA news agency blamed the attack on "terrorists" and gave the same death toll with 64 people wounded.

The soldiers summarily executed were captured at a military compound during a rebel attack in the eastern district of Hanano, Abdel Rahman said.

They had their eyes blindfolded and hands tied behind their backs before they were lined up and shot, sometime over the weekend, he added.

Amateur video posted on YouTube and distributed by the Observatory shows some 20 bodies laid out next to each other on a pavement. Many of the men's heads are covered in blood, and some are wearing jeans rather than full military attire.

One of the rebels standing next to the bodies holds up his hand to make a victory sign. "Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest), cries another, as a third shouts out at the bodies: "You dogs! You low lifes!"

A UN enquiry has accused the army, pro-government militia and the rebels of committing war crimes but has said that violations by the rebels are on a much lower scale.

Brahimi, who last month said he was "scared" of his mission, met Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi in Cairo where he also had talks with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

"I realize it's a very difficult mission, but I think it is not my right to refuse to give whatever assistance I can to the Syrian people," Brahimi told reporters.

"I am at the service of the Syrian people alone," he said.

But he also admitted the complex nature of his mission saying: "We cannot expect miracles. No miracles can be expected in this difficult crisis."

Brahimi said he plans to go to Damascus "in a few days" to meet officials and civil society members. Asked if he will meet the Syrian president, he said: "I hope to but I don't know."

Brahimi's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi has said the date of the envoy's visit to Syria would be fixed once his program of meetings is finalized.

Diplomatic flurry as violence rages 

Also in Cairo, foreign ministry delegations from Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia were due to hold talks aimed at resolving the conflict in Syria.

"There will be a meeting this evening at the foreign ministry headquarters of the deputy foreign ministers of the four countries to prepare for a ministerial meeting in the coming days," Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamal Amr said.

"The ministerial meeting might take place next week," a Turkish diplomat told AFP.

The meeting is the first of a regional "contact group" on Syria proposed by Morsi in August at a summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Saudi Arabia that suspended Syria's membership.

The Netherlands also announced it will host a "Friends of Syria" meeting on September 20 to broaden the scope of sanctions and sharpen specific measures against the Damascus regime.

On the weekend the European Union agreed on the need to beef up sanctions against Assad's inner circle.

Also on Monday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for all war criminals in Syria to be brought to justice, as his human rights chief urged a probe into the slaughter late last month of hundreds of people in the southern town of Daraya.

Elsewhere in the conflict-torn country, five civilians were killed and dozens hurt when regime forces shelled rebel areas of the capital Damascus near Sayeda Zeinab, an important Shiite pilgrimage shrine, the Observatory said.

Deadly violence also flared in Daraa province, where a mother and her child were killed, as well as in the central province of Hama, the Observatory said.

At least 27 people were killed nationwide on Monday, the watchdog said -- adding to a toll of more than 27,000 people killed since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March last year.

Syrian troops meanwhile regained full control of the Hanano barracks in Aleppo on Monday after days of fierce clashes with rebels seeking to overrun the strategic site, a military official said.

"The Syrian army is in total control of the Hanano barracks after fighting which came to a complete halt during the night," the source told AFP from inside the barracks.