Syria shells rebels, killing 16 people

BEIRUT – Heavy government shelling of rebel positions near the Syrian capital killed 16 people on Saturday, activists said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the mortar and artillery fire on the Moldokhiya agricultural area south of Damascus killed 14 rebels. A child and another civilian also died in the shelling, it added.

The group also reported heavy fighting between rebels and troops loyal to President Bashar Assad around the Christian village of Maaloula northeast of Damascus. The rebel advance into the area this week was reportedly spearheaded by al-Qaida-linked fighters, exacerbating fears among religious minorities in particular that Islamic extremists are playing an increasingly important role in the war.

Fighters from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also have participated in battles around Maaloula, destroying two government checkpoints earlier this week, according to a statement by the main opposition coalition on Friday.

— The Associated Press

EU stops far short of backing U.S. strike

VILNIUS, Lithuania – The European Union called Saturday for a “clear and strong” international response to what it said was “strong evidence” that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government was responsible for a massive chemical weapons attack two weeks ago near Damascus.

But the EU statement stopped far short of endorsing a U.S. military strike — something that U.S. officials acknowledged many of the organization’s 28 members do not support.

EU foreign ministers, after listening to Secretary of State John Kerry explain the U.S. position on punishing Syria with a limited strike, also indicated that no action should take place until U.N. chemical weapons inspectors release their report at least two weeks from now.

— The Washington Post

Tens of thousands attend peace vigil

VATICAN CITY – Tens of thousands of people filled St. Peter’s Square for a four-hour Syria peace vigil late Saturday, answering Pope Francis’ call for a grass-roots cry for peace that was echoed by Christians and non-Christians alike in Syria and in vigils around the world.

The Vatican estimated about 100,000 took part in the Rome event, making it one of the largest rallies in the West against proposed U.S.-led military action against the Syrian regime.

Francis spent most of the vigil in silent prayer, but during his speech he issued a heartfelt plea for peace, denouncing those who are “captivated by the idols of dominion and power” and destroy God’s creation through war.

Francis announced the day of fasting and prayer Sept. 1, alarmed at the acceleration of U.S. threats to strike Syria after the chemical weapons attack.

— The Associated Press


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