DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — The Syrian foreign minister accused the U.S. and its allies of stoking "terrorism" in his country, delivering an uncompromising message before the United Nations on Monday as fighting spread in a centerpiece of Syria's cultural heritage, the historic Old City of Aleppo.
Elsewhere in the country, a government air raid on a northern town killed at least 21 people, activists said.
Addressing the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting, Walid al-Moallem denounced countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey for supporting the opposition, and also lashed out at calls in Washington and in Arab and European capitals for President Bashar Assad to step down.
"This terrorism which is externally supported is accompanied by unprecedented media provocation based on igniting religious extremism sponsored by well-known states in the region," he said, an apparent allusion to an anti-Islam film produced in the U.S. that has sparked protests throughout the Muslim world.
He invited the opposition to "work together to stop the shedding of Syrian blood" and said that a Syrian-led dialogue could produce a "more pluralistic and democratic" country.
Al-Moallem's call, similar to other overtures made by Assad's regime, is unlikely to be heeded by the opposition. Most opposition factions have repeatedly dismissed the government's purported peace initiatives as propaganda, meant to buy time. They say will accept nothing less that Assad stepping down as a precondition for talks.
But on many other points, the Syrian opposition's political factions as well as rebel groups fighting on the ground are deeply divided. The Damascus representative of the new international peace envoy to Syria said Monday that the large number of rival rebel groups is one of the main obstacles to a U.N. mission's efforts to broker an end to Syria's 18-month crisis.
With every diplomatic effort so far failing to halt the violence, Syria's civil war has descended into a deadly daily grind as the regime and the rebels trying to overthrow Assad both try to gain the upper hand.
Some of the heaviest fighting Monday took place in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's commercial capital, where rebels recently launched a new offensive.
Aleppo-based activist Mohammed Saeed said 12 people were killed when troops shelled a mosque in the city. A video posted online showed wounded worshippers being rushed away. Another video showed the Osman bin Madoun Mosque later in the day with its green carpets stained with blood.
The Observatory said 40 people were either killed or wounded in Aleppo on Monday, while the LCC put the death toll nationwide at as many as 95 by Monday afternoon.
Northwest of Aleppo, government warplanes bombed the town of Salqin, killing at least 21 people including five children, activists said. The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, put the death toll at 30.
Salqin is located some six kilometers (four miles) from the border with Turkey in Idlib province, which has seen intense clashes between government troops and rebels in recent months.
Footage posted online by activists showed several mutilated bodies in the back of a pickup truck as a man shouts that his son was killed. A second video showed three dead children on the floor of what appeared to be a hospital.
The government severely restricts access to the country, and the authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified.
The state-run news agency SANA said dozens of "terrorists" were killed in Salqin, including some non-Syrian foreign fighters.
A militant group fighting in Syria reported on its website that four members of the Al-Nusra Front were killed in the Salqin battle including a Tunisian. The group has claimed responsibility for several recent suicide attacks in Syria.
Meanwhile, Mokhtar Lamani, who represents special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in the Syrian capital, told The Associated Press in an interview that a solution to the country's crisis remains very difficult because of the "high level of mistrust between all parties." Most opposition groups demand Assad's departure from power, while the regime says its opponents are working as part of a foreign conspiracy.
Brahimi, a veteran Algerian diplomat who previously served as a U.N. envoy to Afghanistan and Iraq, waded into Syria's complicated diplomatic landscape last month when he replaced Kofi Annan, the former U.N. chief whose peace plan for Syria failed to end the violence that activists say has so far killed more than 30,000 people.
Lamani said Brahimi, who visited Damascus last month, will pay a second visit to Syria soon and will tour the country. Asked whether he still sees hope of a political solution in Syria despite the bloodshed, Lamani said: "I think maybe the time will be too long, but I hope (so) ... and this is what I am here for because I hope that in the end there would be some light."
Lamani noted that he had recently visited the central province of Homs and the southern province of Daraa, where he with met representatives of armed groups in the town of Rastan, a rebel stronghold in Homs that was among the first areas to take up arms against Assad's regime. He did not provide any details of his meetings.
He said that some of the main obstacles to brokering a resolution to the conflict are divisions among rebels and opposition groups. There is a vast array of such groups inside and outside the country, and relations among them have been dogged by infighting and mutual accusations of treachery. The rebels include army defectors and gunmen who work under the rag-tag Free Syrian Army.
"There are so many opposition parties inside and outside Syria in addition to the armed groups," Lamani said in Damascus. "This is a little bit very dangerous and complicating our mission because of this kind of fragmentation."
Concerns mounted meanwhile over the damage to Aleppo's historic center, a UNESCO world heritage strike, after a destructive fire which broke out late Friday. Both activists and government officials have said that damage is immense, but blamed the other side for starting it.
Rami Martini, chief of Aleppo's Chamber of Tourism, said three historic markets which he identified as Niswan, Darb and Istanbul "were totally burnt and they consist of more than 500 shops."
Martini, a government tourism official, blamed rebels for the fires in the market, saying opposition forces "hate history." Some opposition activists have suggested government shelling of rebels in the market may have started the blaze.
The Aleppo bazaar, a major tourist attraction with its narrow stone alleys and stores selling perfume, fabrics and spices, had been the site of occasional gun battles and shelling for weeks. But amateur video posted Saturday showed wall-to-wall flames engulfing wooden doors as burning debris fell away from the storefronts. Activists said hundreds of shops were affected, in the worst blow yet to the city's historic center.
Aleppo's walled old city with a medieval covered market, or souk, was recognized by the U.N. cultural agency as a World Heritage site, one of six in Syria.
Martini said the government as well as Arab and international funders spent $300 million to renovate the Aleppo market between 1993 and 2010. "The historical losses in the market are invaluable and the hope is that the market be renovated in the future," he told The Associated Press by telephone from Aleppo.