Syria Agrees To Ceasefire During Eid Al-Adha Holiday, Peace Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi Says

10/24/2012 05:33 am ET | Updated Dec 24, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — Much of New York was plunged into darkness Monday by a superstorm that overflowed the city's historic waterfront, flooded the financial district and subway tunnels and cut power to hundreds of thousands of people.

The city had shut its mass transit system, schools, the stock exchange and Broadway and ordered hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers to leave home to get out of the way of the superstorm Sandy as it zeroed in on the nation's largest city.

Residents spent much of the day trying to salvage normal routines, jogging and snapping pictures of the water while officials warned the worst of the storm had not hit.

By evening, a record 13-foot storm surge was threatening Manhattan's southern tip, howling winds had left a crane hanging from a high-rise and utilities deliberately darkened part of downtown Manhattan to avoid storm damage.

"It's really a complete ghost town now," said Stephen Weisbrot, from a powerless 10th-floor apartment in lower Manhattan.

Water lapped over the seawall in Battery Park City, flooding rail yards, subway tracks, tunnels and roads. Rescue workers floated bright orange rafts down flooded downtown streets, while police officers rolled slowly down the street with loudspeakers telling people to go home.

"Now it's really turning into something," said Brian Damianakes, taking shelter in an ATM vestibule and watching a trash can blow down the street in Battery Park before the storm surge.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the surge was expected to recede by midnight, after exceeding an original expectation of 11 feet.

"We knew that this was going to be a very dangerous storm, and the storm has met our expectations," he said. "This is a once-in-a-long-time storm."

About 670,000 customers were without power late Monday in the city and suburban Westchester County.

"This will be one for the record books," said John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations at ConEdison. "This will be the largest storm-related outage in our history."

Because a customer is defined as an individual meter, the actual number of people affected is probably much higher.

It could be several days to a week before all residents who lost power during the storm get their lights back, Miksad said.

Shortly after the massive storm made landfall in southern New Jersey, Consolidated Edison cut power deliberately to about 6,500 customers in downtown Manhattan to avert further damage. Soon, huge swaths of the city went dark.

New York University's hospital lost backup power, Bloomberg said. Late Monday, an explosion at a substation at 14th Street and FDR Drive contributed to the outages. No one was injured, and ConEd did not know whether the explosion was caused by flooding or by flying debris.

The underground power lines that deliver electricity to much of New York City are much less vulnerable to outages than overhead lines because they aren't exposed to wind and falling trees or branches. But when damaged, they are harder to repair because the equipment is more difficult to access.

If substations are flooded while in operation, the equipment will fail and need to be replaced. If they are shut down in advance, workers can more quickly power up the machinery and restore service after floodwaters have receded.

After a backup generator failed, New York University's Tisch Hospital began evacuating more than 200 patients to other facilities, including 20 babies from neonatal intensive care, some of them on respirators operating on battery power.

Without power, the hospital had no elevator service, meaning patients had to be carefully carried down staircases.

Earlier Monday, another 1 million customers lost power in New York City, the northern suburbs and coastal Long Island, where floodwaters swamped cars, downed trees and put neighborhoods under water.

The storm had only killed one New York City resident by Monday night, a man who died when a tree fell on his home in the Flushing section of Queens.

The rains and howling winds, some believed to reach more than 95 mph, left a crane hanging off a luxury high-rise in midtown Manhattan, causing the evacuation of hundreds from a posh hotel and other buildings. Inspectors were climbing 74 flights of stairs to examine the crane hanging from the $1.5 billion building.

The facade of a four-story Manhattan building in the Chelsea neighborhood crumbled and collapsed suddenly, leaving the lights, couches, cabinets and desks inside visible from the street. No one was hurt, although some of the falling debris hit a car.

On coastal Long Island, floodwaters swamped cars, downed trees and put neighborhoods under water as beachfronts and fishing villages bore the brunt of the storm. A police car was lost rescuing 14 people from the popular resort Fire Island.

The city shut all three of its airports, its subways, schools, stock exchanges, Broadway theaters and closed several bridges and tunnels throughout the day as the weather worsened.

Earlier, some New Yorkers defiantly soldiered on, trying to salvage normal routines and refusing to evacuate, as the mayor ordered 375,000 in low-lying areas to do.

Tanja Stewart and her 7-year-old son, Finn, came from their home in Manhattan's TriBeCa neighborhood to admire the white caps on the Hudson, Finn wearing a pair of binoculars around his neck. "I really wanted to see some big waves," he said.

Keith Reilly posed in an Irish soccer jersey for a picture above the rising waters of New York Harbor with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

"This is not so bad right now," said the 25-year-old Reilly.

On Long Island, floodwaters had begun to deluge some low-lying towns. Cars floated along the streets of Long Beach and flooding consumed several blocks south of the bay, residents said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, holding a news conference on Long Island where the lights flickered and his mike went in and out, said most of the National Guards deployed to the New York City area would go to Long Island.

Anoush Vargas drove with her husband, Michael to the famed Jones Beach Monday morning, only to find it covered by water.

"We have no more beach. It's gone," she said, shaking her head as she watched the waves go under the boardwalk.


Associated Press writers Karen Matthews, Colleen Long and Deepti Hajela in New York, Larry Neumeister, Frank Eltman and Meghan Barr on Long Island, and Seth Borenstein in Kensington, Md., contributed to this report.

Previous cease-fire missions have failed, in part because neither Syrian President Bashar Assad nor rebels trying to topple him had an incentive to end their bloody war of attrition. Both sides believe they can still make gains on the battlefield even as they are locked in a stalemate, and neither has faith in negotiations on a political transition.

Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, has proposed that both sides lay down their arms during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which begins Friday.

The Security Council is normally divided on Syria, but Assad allies Russia and China joined other council members in endorsing the idea of a temporary truce that is meant to pave the way for talks on ending Syria's 19-month-old conflict.

The response on the ground ranged from lukewarm to downright rejection. Syrian government officials said they were still studying the idea, while Syria's political opposition said it was skeptical of the regime's promises. A rebel commander dismissed the plan as irrelevant and a radical Islamist group fighting alongside the rebels said it won't comply with any truce.

As Brahimi briefed the Security Council, the death toll since the start of the conflict in March 2011 crossed the threshold of 35,000, activists said, and more violence was reported across the country.

Two car bombs killed at least eight bus passengers in the capital Damascus and 12 regime soldiers near a military checkpoint in the north, while regime airstrikes on villages near a besieged army base killed 12 civilians, activists said. They also posted a video showing at least 13 bodies laid out Wednesday in a room in a Damascus suburb, some of them women and children. Each side blamed the other for the deaths.

Brahimi told the Security Council by video conference from Cairo that he hopes a truce will allow humanitarian aid to reach war-stricken areas and start transition talks, said U.N. diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.

However, months of horrific bloodshed and deep distrust between the combatants make it unlikely they will embark on the path outlined by Brahimi. The Syrian opposition says it won't negotiate unless Assad resigns, something the Syrian leader refuses to do.

"The Syrian regime throughout its reign and up until now signs everything but violates everything," Haitham Maleh, a veteran Syrian opposition leader, said after he and others met with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby in Cairo.

Maleh said there is concern the regime would exploit a cease-fire to take back rebel-held territory. The opposition will not accept any political solution that does not include Assad leaving his post, he said.

Brahimi has served as envoy since September, taking over from former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who quit after failing to end the Syria fighting. Annan had pushed a six-point plan, including an April 12 cease-fire that was to lead to transition talks but never took hold.

Annan's successor has been blunt about the difficulty of his assignment, trying to lower expectations. He suggested Wednesday that even the holiday truce is a gamble, saying that failure could make the situation in Syria even worse, according to the U.N. diplomat.

Still, the international community has little else to offer. There is no appetite for military intervention, while harsher U.N. action against the regime has been blocked by Russia and China, two Security Council members with veto powers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she supports Brahimi's cease-fire so that "Syrians could celebrate in peace."

"We'd like to see the violence come to an end, there's no doubt about this, and we'd like to see a political transition take hold and begin. We've been calling for that for more than a year," she added.

Few of those involved in the conflict appeared ready to commit to a truce.

Abdelbaset Sieda, head of the main opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Council, said rebel fighters would hold their fire during the holiday unless attacked by regime forces. However, his group has no control over rebels fighting on the ground.

Rebel commander Zahran Aloush of the al-Islam brigade outside of Damascus said he's ignoring truce efforts. "How can I expect a cease-fire from a regime that has never given us anything, ever," he said via Skype.

The al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra, which fights with the rebels and has claimed a number of large suicide bombings against regime targets, said it will not lay down arms.

"There will be no truce between us and the prideful regime and shedder of the blood of Muslims," the group said in statement posted on militant websites. "We are not among those who allow the wily to trick us, nor are we ones who will accept to play these filthy games."

In Damascus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said the truce proposal was still "being studied" by Syrian army leaders and that Syria's decision would be announced Thursday.

Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters after the Security Council meeting that his country had received indications from Syria it would abide by a cease-fire.

Brahimi hasn't said how compliance would be monitored. Annan's truce plan was more comprehensive, calling for an open-ended truce, a pullback of troops and heavy weapons from urban centers and supervision by U.N. monitors.

In Wednesday's violence, 20 people were found dead in a building in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said local activist Mohammed Saeed, speaking via Skype. The dead included 10 women and four children, he said.

An amateur video posted online showed bodies scattered on the landings of a stairwell and sprawled out on tile floors. Among the bodies were those of two young boys, one with a hole in his head, and a woman. A thick stream of blood flowed from a doorway. Another video showed 13 bodies wrapped in blankets and laid out in two rows.

The videos matched activist descriptions of the event, but because Syria imposes tight restrictions on foreign journalists, their authenticity could not be independently verified.

The state-run news agency SANA quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying that 25 people were killed in Douma on Wednesday and that they were victims of a massacre carried out by "armed terrorists," the regime's term for opposition fighters.

Also Wednesday, Russia's chief military officer said Syrian rebels have acquired portable air defense missiles, including U.S.-made Stinger missiles. In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Gen. Nikolai Makarov didn't say how many such missiles the rebels had and who supplied them.

A Syrian rebel told The Associated Press in Turkey that the insurgents obtained dozens of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, but would not say who provided them.

The Syrian opposition has urged its foreign backers to send heavy weapons, saying rebel fighters cannot break the stalemate as long as Assad can bomb them from the air. However, the Obama administration has refused to do so, saying the weapons might fall into the wrong hands and eventually be used against the U.S. and its allies.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied that the U.S. has provided any Stingers to Syrian rebels. She challenged Russia to provide evidence suggesting otherwise.


Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Maggie Fick in Cairo, Bradley Klapper in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed reporting.

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