A Syrian man rides his bicycle past Hejaz train station in Damascus on September 5, 2013
A Syrian man rides his bicycle past Hejaz train station in Damascus on September 5, 2013. "Phew, that was close," was the reaction of shop-owner Nabil, sharing the relief of Damascenes as a Russian proposal appeared to put US strikes against Syria on hold at the 11th hour. © Louai Beshara - AFP/File
A Syrian man rides his bicycle past Hejaz train station in Damascus on September 5, 2013
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Roueida Mabardi, AFP
Last updated: September 10, 2013

"Phew" on streets of Damascus as US strikes go on hold

"Phew, that was close," was the reaction of shop-owner Nabil, sharing the relief of Damascenes as a Russian proposal appeared to put US strikes against Syria on hold at the 11th hour.

"I was at the law courts and there was a general euphoria in the air," said a prominent lawyer, declining to give his name.

"One of the employees there said: 'This is the start of the end of the war. The Russians and the Americans have agreed on chemical weapons and I think that soon they'll agree on ending the war,'" the lawyer said.

In a surprise initiative, Russia on Monday proposed Syria hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to international control, heading off punitive US strikes for the regime's alleged poison gas attacks near Damascus last month that killed hundreds of people.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, which denies having carried out the attacks, welcomed the proposal, along with most of the international community.

"The strikes have been called off. They would have caused such terrible destruction," said tailor Abu Hussein, who like numerous people -- both pro- and anti-regime -- questioned on the streets of Damascus voiced relief.

"The ground would have trembled in Damascus. Illegally built houses would have collapsed," he said.

However, a fruit and vegetables merchant in Shaalan district cautioned that it was too early to celebrate.

"Thank God, there'll be no strike. But we are always afraid in this country because you never know when death will strike," he said in a weary voice.

"We're safe for now. Our president's shown good sense. The economy would have been even more seriously damaged," was the assessment of a curtain salesman in Sabaa Bahrat Square of downtown Damascus.

But he was sure the West would "find new pretexts to attack" the Syrian government, which has faced an armed revolt since March 2011 that has cost more than 110,000 lives.

"Phew, that was close," said Nabil, the shopkeeper in Salhieh Street, who says he is no great admirer of the Assad regime. "The regime proved it has chemical weapons and now that it will hand them over."

The Los Angeles Times reported on Sunday that the Pentagon was readying more intense and longer attacks on Syria than originally planned, set to last three days.

War planners aimed to unleash a heavy barrage of missile strikes to be followed swiftly by additional attacks on targets that may have been missed or remain standing after the initial launch, the Times cited officials as saying.

Two US officers told the daily that the White House has asked the defence department for an expanded list to include "many more" than the initial list of around 50 targets.

"We're not animals. We're human beings. People must be able to speak rather than kill each other. When I heard there'd be no strikes, I said: 'Just as well, there'll be less deaths,'" English teacher Nabila al-Zawahiri said.

Dressed in black and her eyes reddened by tears, she was taking part in the funeral of five residents of the Christian town of Maalula, north of the capital, killed in clashes last week between the government and rebels.

"Tell the world that we want peace," she said.

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