Second round of Annan-Assad talks, yet same message: Violence must end
DAMASCUS - Former UN chief Kofi Annan was set to hold a second round of talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday on his mission to end a year of bloodshed, after the army stormed a rebel stronghold.
Diplomats at the United Nations in New York expressed pessimism about the prospects for Annan's mission after troops poured into the northwestern city of Idlib late on Saturday just hours after his first meeting with Assad.
Activists had expressed concern that the city would suffer a similar fate to the Homs neighbourhood of Baba Amr, which was stormed by government troops on March 1 after a month-long bombardment in which hundreds of people died.
Syrian state television said there was a "positive atmosphere" to Saturday's talks between Assad and the former UN chief, their first since Annan's appointment as United Nations-Arab League envoy on the conflict.
Annan described the meeting as "candid and comprehensive," in a statement released by the United Nations.
Assad said he would back any "honest" bid to end the violence that monitors say has claimed more than 8,500 lives since March last year but warned dialogue would fail if "terrorist groups" remained, state media said.
Annan expressed "grave concern" to Assad over the persistent bloodshed and "urged the president to take concrete steps to end the current crisis," the UN statement said.
He "put several proposals on the table regarding stopping the violence and the killing, access for humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, release of detainees and the start of an inclusive political dialogue," it added.
Thirty-two civilians were among the 91 people killed nationwide on Saturday. Thirty-nine rebel fighters and 20 soldiers also died.
Twenty-two of the civilians and 22 of the rebels were killed in Idlib province.
The army shelled Idlib heavily before sweeping into the city, where 16 civilians were killed, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Abdel Rahman said. Dozens were wounded and scores arrested by regime forces.
After seizing Idlib town, troops fanned out into rural areas of the province on Sunday, notably the Jisr al-Shughur district, Abdel Rahman said.
"Fierce fighting between deserters and the army has been raging since early this morning in the Al-Janudieh area," he said.
"Three soldiers were killed in the fighting. One civilian was also killed when the security forces opened fire indiscriminately."
"The army is also preparing to launch an offensive against the rebel district of Jabal al-Zawiya," a range of hills close to the Turkish border, where fighters of the Free Syrian Army have been particularly active, he added.
Opposition figures who met Annan on Saturday in Damascus insisted the regime must pull troops from cities and towns and release political prisoners before the start of any dialogue.
"We cannot talk about a political process before a ceasefire... the release of political prisoners and the withdrawal of troops are withdrawn from cities and towns," one of them, Abdel Aziz al-Kheir, said.
Ahead of a meeting on Monday that will bring together foreign ministers of the main Security Council member states, diplomats at the United Nations in New York expressed pessimism about the prospects for Annan's peace mission.
"Kofi Annan's meeting in Damascus seems to have gone nowhere," said one senior envoy from a Security Council member.
"Assad is determined not to give in and the divide is growing between Russia and the Western countries," the envoy said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
"It is difficult to see anything but new friction at this meeting," the envoy added.
To the anger of Arab and Western governments, Syrian allies Russia and China have twice used their powers as permanent members of the Security Council to veto resolutions condemning Damascus.
Talks on a new US-led attempt to agree a resolution have hit a dead end, although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of Monday's meeting in New York.
Russia and China say the Western nations only want a resolution to back regime change. Lavrov said Russia opposes "crude interference" in Syria's internal affairs, his ministry said after a meeting between Lavrov and Annan in Cairo late on Friday.
Russia wants any resolution to call equally on the government and opposition groups to halt the violence. The Western members say the security force assault and attacks by opposition groups cannot be put on the same level.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is to brief Monday's meeting, has bluntly accused Assad's troops of using "disproportionate" force against what started out as peaceful demonstrations.