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Syria welcomes Annan successor

The Syrian government has welcomed the naming of a former Algerian diplomat as the UN's new point-man in efforts to halt the country's escalating civil war.

Meanwhile activists reported more shelling by regime troops, including an air attack on a northern border town where scores died earlier this week.

In a statement, the office of Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa not only expressed support for Lakhdar Brahimi, it also denied reports circulating in Arab media that al-Sharaa had defected to the opposition.

Al-Sharaa "did not think, at any moment, of leaving the country", the statement said.

The vice president's cousin Yaroub, a colonel in the military defected to the opposition earlier this month, appearing on the pan-Arab Al-Arabiya TV. The regime of President Bashar Assad has suffered a string of prominent defections in recent months, though his inner circle and military have largely kept their cohesive stance behind him.

The highest-ranking political defector so far, Assad's former prime minister Riad Hijab, has gone to Qatar where he may reveal his future plans, according to Syrian rebels and a relative of Mr Hijab. Qatar is among a group of Gulf Arab nations that have backed the rebellion against Assad.

The new UN envoy, Brahimi, takes over from former secretary-general Kofi Annan who is stepping down on August 31 after his attempts to broker a ceasefire failed. His appointment comes as UN observers have begun leaving Syria, with their mission officially over at the end of Sunday.

Their deployment earlier this year had been one of the only concrete achievements in Mr Annan's peace attempts. The observers had been intended to watch over a ceasefire, but no truce ever took hold.

Mr Al-Sharaa's office said the vice president "supports Brahimi's demand to get united support from the Security Council to carry out his mission without obstacles".

Also on Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a television interview that Moscow rejected international intervention in the form of a militarily enforced no-fly zone for government aircraft in northern Syria - an idea mentioned as a possible option by US officials last week.

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