World powers mull Syria crisis forum
DAMASCUS - France said on Friday that world powers could hold a summit on the Syrian crisis at the end of June as the deadly revolt against President Bashar al-Assad entered its 16th month.
Activists on the ground called for another day of anti-regime protests after at least another 84 people were killed in clashes and bombings across the country on Thursday, a human rights watchdog said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said major world powers could hold a conference on the crisis which has cost thousands of lives on June 30 in the Swiss city of Geneva.
"There is a possibility, I don't know if we'll get there, but there is a possibility of holding a conference in Geneva on June 30," Fabius told France Inter radio.
Participants would include countries on the UN Security Council but the meeting would be held "without the constraints of the Security Council," the foreign minister added.
He also said that talks were under way with Russia on Syria's future if Assad is ousted.
"The Russians are not today attached to the person of Bashar al-Assad. They clearly see he is a tyrant and a murderer. But they are sensitive about who might take his place, if Assad is ousted. The discussion is about that," he said.
Russia, along with China, has vetoed two Security Council resolutions against Assad and has vowed to oppose any military intervention.
In reaction to US charges, Russia said on Friday that it was not making any new deliveries of attack helicopters to Syria and had only carried out repairs of helicopters sent there many years ago.
"There are no new supplies of Russian-made attack helicopters to Syria," the foreign ministry said, adding that "planned repairs were carried out earlier on helicopters supplied to Syria many years ago."
The ministry reasserted Russia's position that "all our military and technical cooperation with Syria is limited to the supply of defensive weapons."
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday accused Russia of fuelling the violence by sending attack helicopters to Syria, which she said were "on the way" and would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically."
Her spokeswoman Victoria Nuland later said that Russia was sending back "freshly refurbished" helicopters to the regime in Damascus that had been under repairs for six months or more.
On a conciliatory note, Clinton said Thursday that the United States had held "constructive" talks with Russia but urged more action after days of feuding over the bloodshed in Syria.
Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of a conference in Afghanistan, she said.
"My deputy Bill Burns had a constructive meeting in Kabul with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. We don't see eye to eye on all of the issues, but our discussions continue," Clinton told a news conference.
She said that US President Barack Obama would meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at next week's Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico.
Monitors say more than 14,400 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since a peaceful uprising erupted on March 15, 2011, prompting a bloody crackdown by Assad's forces that eventually prompted an armed reaction.
In other violence on Thursday, 14 people were also wounded when a suicide bomber blew up a vehicle near an important Shiite Muslim shrine in the capital, the state news agency SANA said.
And a car bomb in the northwestern city of Idlib killed and wounded a number of soldiers, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
As on nearly every Friday since the uprising began, activists have called for nationwide demonstrations after weekly prayers, with this week's slogan being "Always prepared for a strong mobilisation."
Around the country, the Observatory said 48 civilians were among at least 84 killed in clashes and bombings on Thursday.
Areas in the provinces of Homs, Daraa, Damascus, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Idlib were all targeted, the London-based watchdog said.
UN observers on Thursday visited Al-Haffe town in the Mediterranean province of Latakia, a day after Syrian authorities said the area had been "cleansed" of rebel fighters, a UN spokeswoman in Damascus said.
On Wednesday, rebels withdrew from the besieged town and nearby villages that had been under intense regime shelling for eight days, the Observatory said.
The UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) said the observers reported finding it all but deserted with a strong stench of dead bodies and most state buildings gutted.
State television said the observers had "inspected the vandalism and destruction wrought by the terrorists."
The United Nations and opposition activists had expressed fears of a massacre if pro-government forces entered the town, just 16 kilometres (10 miles) from Assad's mainly Alawite hometown of Qardaha.
Opposition sources said anti-Assad groups are to meet in Istanbul on Friday and Saturday in a bid to settle their differences and close ranks.