BEIRUT (AFP/Reuters) - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday called on the BRICS nations to intervene to end the conflict in his country, in a letter delivered by his adviser Bouthaina Shaaban during a trip to South Africa.
Speaking to AFP, Shaaban said she had delivered the letter to South African President Jacob Zuma ahead of the BRICS summit in South Africa on March 26.
"Today I passed a message from President Bashar al-Assad to President Jacob Zuma, who will preside over the March 26 BRICS summit, on the subject of the situation in Syria," Shaaban said, reached by telephone from Beirut.
"In this message, President Bashar al-Assad asks for intervention by the BRICS to stop the violence in his country and encourage the opening of a dialogue, which he wishes to start." Shaaban said during the meeting with Zuma, which was also attended by South Africa's foreign minister, "the president was very positive and deplored the destruction affecting this beautiful country."
The BRICS acronym refers to the nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, all developing powers which opposed the use of force in Libya.
Syrian regime forces pounded the rebel-held town of Binesh near the Turkish border killing a woman and five children, and also rained shells on parts of Damascus on Saturday, a watchdog said. Activists said the six people killed in Binesh were a woman and her five children, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights could not immediately confirm they were from the same family.
In March 2012, dozens of residents fled Binesh, in the northwestern province of Idlib, when shells slammed into the town as regime troops advanced in a bid to expel rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
The Observatory said shells hit Binesh on Saturday, killing the woman and the children, as clashes broke out around the nearby town of Maaret al-Numan which rebels captured in October 2012.
Meanwhile,a brigadier general and about 20 soldiers defected from the Syrian army in two separate incidents on Saturday, activists said, in another sign that the strength of President Bashar al-Assad's armed forces is diminishing.
Brigadier General Mohammed Khalouf appeared dressed in a camouflage military uniform in a video on Al Arabiya news channel and said he had planned his escape with the opposition movement for some time. "It is not possible for anyone to accept any of the ideas of this regime unless they have achieved special interests," he said in the video.
Meanwhile, the European Union's top diplomat, Catherine Ashton, urged caution Saturday on a proposal by Britain and France to arm the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. "We have to work through, very carefully, the best understanding we can have of what would be the implications," she said, the day after the EU wrapped up a summit without reaching agreement on easing an arms embargo to allow weapons shipments to the rebels.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch warned on Saturday that Syria's regime are expanding its use of cluster munitions in its conflict with rebel forces, causing "mounting civilian causalities". "Syria is expanding its relentless use of cluster munitions, a banned weapon, and civilians are paying the price with their lives and limbs," Steve Goose, director of HRW's arms division, said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Lebanese President Michel Sleiman said that Lebanon must prevent fighters from crossing into Syria.
Shortly after his office announced the comments, made in a meeting with the Lebanese community in the Ivory Coast during an official visit, witnesses on Saturday reported a Syrian troop buildup along parts of the border with Lebanon.
Lebanon's stability depends "on all of us... not sending militants to Syria and not receiving them," Sleiman said, adding "we must commit ourselves to neutrality."
Sleiman said he had tasked Lebanon's army with "the arrest of any militants intending to fight (in Syria), whether for the opposition or not."
A statement released by Prime Minister Najib Mikati's office said the premier had met the army chief to discuss "the measures being taken by the Lebanese military... on the border with Syria to prevent the infiltration of militants and arms smuggling operation."
Syria warned on Thursday that its forces would fire into Lebanon if "terrorist gangs" continued to infiltrate the country.
"These past 36 hours, armed terrorist gangs have infiltrated Syrian territory in large numbers from Lebanon," the Syrian foreign ministry said, in a message quoted by official news agency SANA.
"Syrian forces are showing restraint by not striking these gangs inside Lebanese territory to prevent them crossing into Syria, but this will not go on indefinitely," it said in a message to its Lebanese counterpart.
A Lebanese government source, speaking to AFP on Saturday, said Beirut took the warning "very seriously" and that "intensive consultations are underway to find the best way to control the border."
On Saturday afternoon, witnesses in villages along Lebanon's northern border reported an increased Syrian troop presence on the Syrian side, visible from villages including Wadi Khaled and Al-Arida.
Lebanon's opposition March 14th movement, which opposes the Damascus regime, has called for the army to deploy along the border with Syria to halt the flow of arms and militants, and protect Lebanese territory.
Beirut has officially pledged neutrality in the violence engulfing its neighbour, but has found itself increasingly embroiled in the civil war.
Lebanon's opposition backs the revolt, which entered its third year on Friday, while the Shiite Hezbollah and its allies stand by the Syrian regime.
Violence has already spilled over into Lebanon on several occasions, causing fatalities, and on Thursday the UN Security Council expressed "grave concern" about cross-border attacks.