Syrian forces step up their assault on the rebel-held town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border

Syrian forces stepped up their assault on the rebel-held town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border on Saturday as a second round of talks in Geneva aimed at ending the three-year-old conflict ended without much progress.

Mediator Lakhdar Brahimi apologised to the Syrian people for the lack of progress as no date was set for a third round of talks.

“I apologise to the Syrian people that their hopes were very, very high that something would happen here ... I apologize to them that in these two rounds we haven’t achieved much,” Mr. Brahimi said.

The U.N.-Arab League envoy said both sides needed “to go back and reflect and think and come back ready to engage seriously.” He proposed that in the coming round the first day will be set for discussions on ending violence and combating terrorism and the second day would be for the transitional government body.

“I think at least we have agreed on an agenda but we also have to agree on how to tackle that agenda. I very much hope there will be a third round, the sooner the better,” he said.

“We suggested from the beginning that the two sides should reassure one another that their pet subject, and both are very important subjects, will be discussed,” Mr. Brahimi added.

The opposition delegation said in a statement that they accept Brahimi’s proposal and blamed the government for “disrupting the conference” by refusing to discuss a transitional government.

“The session today lasted for less than half an hour, during which Brahimi discussed the agenda of the next round,” it added.

Syria’s envoy to the U.N. Bashar al-Jaafari lashed back at the opposition saying: “We looked forward to a clear commitment from the two sides to fight terrorism publicly ... and not consider it a secondary issue.” As the talks ended, a pro-opposition watchdog group said the death toll in Syria’s civil war has crossed 140,000.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said included in this count are 71,141 civilians and rebels, 8,972 extremist and al-Qaeda-linked fighters, 2,837 unidentified bodies and 33,591 regime forces.

Meanwhile, opposition activists said regime forces were using aerial and ground bombardment on the town of Yabroud, while state television said the operation was to root out “armed terrorist groups.” Mohammed Hujeiri, a resident of the north-eastern Lebanese town of Arsaal, which is located close to the hills of Yabroud, told dpa: “The shelling is continuous and the helicopters and jets have been bombarding the area with explosive barrels since the early hours of the morning.” Thousands of Syrians have fled Yabroud since the military launched its assault Wednesday around the last rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has since mid-November pursued a slow, but successful, offensive in the strategic region, which straddles the Damascus-Homs highway and holds rebel supply lines across the Lebanese border.

U.N. agencies have been preparing their teams in Arsaal for an exodus from Yabroud, which is home to 40,000-50,000 people.

On Friday, the U.N. raised the alarm of a major military build-up in Yabroud.

“According to reports we have received from within Syria, there have been numerous aerial attacks and shelling, along with a military build-up around the town suggesting a major assault by land may be imminent,” said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Mr. Hujeiri said: “Some 20 families arrived in Arsaal after they escaped through the mountainous areas [overnight] through the heavy rain. Mainly they are women and children.” U.S. President Barack Obama, in a late Friday meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in California, warned that there would be no political solution in Syria expected in the short term.

“There will be some intermediate steps that we can take to apply more pressure to the Assad regime,” Obama said, without elaborating on what those measures would be.

He said the underlying problem continued to be “a regime led by Bashar al-Assad that has shown very little regard for the well-being of his people. ... We are going to need a political transition in that region.” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said of the assault on Yabroud: “There were attempts on the ground to infiltrate the village but so far they have failed due to the fierce confrontation they faced by the rebels.” The UN spokesman said electricity was cut off there Wednesday and field hospitals were short of medical supplies.

“We are deeply concerned that the attack on Yabroud may follow the pattern of previous attacks on cities and towns across Syria where government aerial bombardments were indiscriminate and disproportionate in violation of obligations under international law and (where) ensuing land incursions resulted in heavy civilian casualties,” he added.

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