Welcome to Middle East Live.
Here’s a roundup of the latest developments:
• Syrian tanks have closed in on the entrances to the largest Palestinian camp in Damascus after battles between pro- and anti-Assad groups for the first time directly drew the country’s refugees into the 21-month-old crisis. Skirmishes between Palestinian groups allied with the rebel Free Syrian Army and other factions loyal to the Assad regime continued on Monday, a day after an air strike on a mosque in Yarmouk camp was thought to have killed around 20 people.
• Two Russians and an Italian steel worker have been kidnapped near the port city of Tartus, AFP reports. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Moscow was taking “all the necessary steps both in Syria and other countries” to win the men’s release.
• Syria is “genuinely worried” that some countries might equip extremist groups with chemical weapons and then claim they were used by the Syrian government, according to the country’s UN ambassador. In a letter to the UN secretary general, Bashar Ja’afari also accused the US government of supporting “terrorists” in Syria and waging a campaign that claims Syria could use chemical weapons.
• The prime minister, Wael al-Halki, made a rare visit to Aleppo on Monday pledging $4m in aid, according to state television. The TV station offered no photos or film of the visit, but quoted Halki as saying: “There is a surplus in food supplies and fuel supplies are also ready for Aleppo city but the problem is getting it to residents because of the sabotage by armed terrorist groups that have destroyed many bakeries and roads in the Aleppo countryside.”
• The UN’s humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has revealed that UN officials are making more contacts with rebel leaders in an effort to get aid to the worst hit areas. Amos, who met Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, and other officials in Damascus on Saturday, said fuel shortages and lack of staff were hindering essential humanitarian support across the country. After briefing the security council about the visit, she told reporters:
I also informed the government that we will be making greater contacts with the opposition inside of Syria itself. If we are truly to make use of the access that the government says we can have, it means that we have to cross lines, we have to move from government-controlled areas to disputed areas to opposition-controlled areas.
• David Cameron has turned concern that western weapons will reach al-Qaida groups on its head by claiming there is a “strategic imperative” to arm the broad-based opposition now before it is eclipsed by extremists, the Telegraph reports. The prime minister told the Commons: “My concern is that if we, with others, aren’t helping to shape and work with the opposition, it’s much more difficult to get the transition we all want to see to a peaceful, democratic Syria that respects the rights of minorities.”
• The opposition has called for more mass protests over the controversial referendum and claimed that “irregularities and violations” marred the first round of voting. The National Salvation Front urged people to “take to the streets on Tuesday to defend their freedoms, prevent fraud and reject the draft”.
• Egypt’s public prosecutor, appointed by President Mohamed Morsi last month, resigned on Monday in a move welcomed by Morsi’s opponents as a victory for the independence of the judiciary. Ibrahim stepped down after a furore among judges who said Morsi’s decision in November to sack the former public prosecutor and appoint Ibrahim was an assault on their independence.
• The Muslim Brotherhood has claimed victory in the first round of the referendum. Unofficial results from Saturday’s first round showed 56% approval to 43% rejection on a low turnout of 33%, with a clear no win in Cairo, one of the 10 governorates where polling took place. The referendum is to be held in the country’s remaining 17 governorates next Saturday – where prospects for a no win are poorer.