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Syria Fighting Rages On, Nations Discuss More Sanctions

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Fighting raged around Syria's main airport Friday and an Internet blackout continued throughout Syria as diplomats from more than 60 countries met in Tokyo to tighten sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's government.

Heavy clashes are reported in towns near the airport and one activist said the government continued its bombing of the suburb of Daraya.

Rami Abd al-Rahman of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that while the airport road is open, it is not completely secure, due to continuing fighting in various towns along the road. He said government forces are using both warplanes and artillery to bomb rebel positions near the airport road.

Analyst Riad Kahwaji, who heads the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, says any long-term closure of the airport would “deprive the government of a significant supply route” used for “weapons and munitions from Russia and Iran.”

Kahwaji said fighting on the airport road may be a sign that rebel forces are beginning to encircle the capital:

“It is another indication that the rebels have actually gained control of all the suburbs of Damascus and are beginning to lay siege to the capital, starting from the east and the west and the south, and now the north," he said. "So, now the rebels are making quite a push on the capital."

Internet and telephone lines remained cut Friday throughout much of Syria for a second straight day.

The Internet blackout, confirmed by two U.S.-based companies that monitor online connectivity, is unprecedented in the 20-month-long uprising against Syria's President Assad.

Authorities often cut phone lines and Internet access in areas where government forces are conducting major military operations.

Sanctions meeting

​​In Tokyo, the Friends of the Syrian People International Working Group on Sanctions issued a statement Friday after a one-day meeting, calling on those working with the Syrian regime to distance themselves or “face further isolation from the international community and the international economic and financial system.”

While Russia and China were not named in the statement, delegates confirmed it is meant to warn those two countries, who were not part of the Tokyo meeting.

The group also asked for a tightened embargo on petroleum products. The United States has banned the import of Syrian oil and gas. The European Union has not.

Representing one of the co-chairs, Ambassador Samir Arrour of Morocco, said the Tokyo meeting achieved its goal.

“This meeting was aimed at strengthening sanctions against the Syrian regime," Arrour said. "Most of the countries that were present agreed upon these kinds of action to provoke further search for a peaceful solution so we can see an end to the civilian casualties and a cessation of violence.”

While the Tokyo meeting itself imposed no new sanctions, it did formally hear from a number of countries about new sanctions they have imposed.

Among the most significant: Turkey revealed it has prohibited shipments of phosphate into Syria.

Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba said the group was taking collective action amid a failure by a divided United Nations Security Council to do so.

Sanctions pressure

Francesso Fini, deputy director of sanctions security policy for the European External Action Service, said sanctions should help increase pressures on the Syrian regime.

“Sanctions, in themselves, will not achieve the solution," he said. "But they can contribute by putting pressure on the regime, by stopping funding reaching the regime with well-targeted measures - targeted and aimed at the regime and its supporters and protecting the population from intended effects."

This was the first meeting of the sanctions group in Asia. Bangladesh, Indonesia and Kosovo joined the group for the first time, and participants said this was a symbol of a further international “building of political will” about Syria.

The Tokyo meeting also was the first attended by representatives of a newly-formed Syrian opposition group - the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, which France, Britain, Turkey and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have formally recognized as the Syrian people' legitimate representatives.

Co-chairs of the meeting in Japan told reporters the telecommunications outage in Syria was not mentioned during the conference, but a U.S. State Department official in Tokyo contradicted that account, saying the subject was discussed briefly.

A separate Friends of Syria group focusing on economic recovery and development in the country is to be held December 12 in Morocco. The sanctions group convenes again in Bulgaria next February.

Article by Steve Herman and Edward Yeranian, VOA News