Surge in Syria violence prompts Russian evacuation
The surge in violence around Damascus has prompted Russia, a traditional ally of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to evacuate some 100 of its nationals from the war-torn country, DPA reported.
"The Russian nationals will be transferred in buses via land to Lebanon and then they will board two Russian planes from Beirut International Airport to Moscow," a Lebanese security source told dpa in Beirut.
The Interfax news agency, quoting the Russian Emergencies Ministry, said 100 Russian nationals would leave Syria on Tuesday.
A western diplomat based in Beirut described the Russian evacuation as "a serious indication that the situation around the Syrian capital is heading towards more deterioration in the coming days."
There are some 30,000 Russian citizens residing in Syria.
Al-Assad, meanwhile, remained defiant towards the West, telling the Iran-based Al Nasim Online news agency that his country "does not need the permission of any nation in the world to deal with its internal political issues."
"What we are going through is a regional and an international battle," Al-Assad was quoted by the Syrian media as saying.
On the ground, activists said 120 people had died, among them at least 15 children, mainly in rebel-held areas in the suburbs of the capital and in Kurdish areas in Al Hasaka.
In a report, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleged that the Syrian regime had put together a new paramilitary force of men and women, trained by the regime's ally Iran, to lead battles against Syrian opposition rebels, especially in areas around the capital.
The force, which is called the National Defence Army, groups members of the existing pro-regime civilian fighters, the Observatory Rights said.
"The Syrian army is not well trained to carry out a street-to- street guerrilla war, so Iran, and the Lebanese Shiite Movement Hezbollah, have taken on this mission to train men and women to carry out these battles," Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory, told dpa.
In New York, the UN-Arab League envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, met with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to assess his mediation efforts aimed at ending the conflict in Syria.
Brahimi may remain in the United States until his scheduled meeting on January 29 with the UN Security Council.
"Mr Brahimi enjoys the full support of the UN secretary general and the Security Council," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in response to reports that Syria had accused the envoy of conspiring against the government in Damascus.
In other developments, Damascus has been without electricity since late Sunday, with power outages also affecting areas in the southern province of Daraa, which borders Jordan.
Electricity Minister Imad Khamis said the outages were caused by "an armed terrorist attack on the main feed line," the official SANA news agency reported.
In Turkey, meanwhile, Syrian opposition leaders failed to agree on a transitional government, a step that was part of the agreement under which the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces was formed in November in Qatar.
The coalition has set up a five-member committee tasked with coming up with a proposal on a government within 10 days.
The talks, launched on Saturday in Turkey, are the opposition's second attempt to form a transitional government.
"We will work hard to form the transitional government, but none of our members will be in it," coalition spokesman Walid al-Bunni told dpa.
Opposition sources said deep divisions had marred the Istanbul meeting, with the coalition unable to reach the two-thirds majority needed to name a prime minister.
The top candidate put forward at the meeting was Riad Hijab, a former Syrian premier who defected last year.
Al-Bunni confirmed to dpa that a delegation from the coalition was to attend a new meeting in Paris on January 28.
Meanwhile, Germany's Patriot missile systems, which will be deployed close to the Syrian border, have arrived in the port of Iskenderun, in southern Turkey.
Turkey had requested help from its NATO allies, after shells fired from Syria killed five of its civilians in October.