Russian FM in Syria amid escalating violence

Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flashpoint city of Homs Tuesday as Russia

Pro-Syrian regime supporters wave Syrian and Russian flags as they cheer a convoy believed to be transporting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. Thousands of Syrians waving Russian flags cheered Russia's foreign minister as he arrived in Damascus Tuesday for talks with embattled President Bashar Assad on the country's escalating violence. (AP Photo/Muzaffar Salman)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flashpoint city of Homs Tuesday as Russia's foreign minister stressed the need for reform and dialogue during talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad about the country's escalating violence.

Sergey Lavrov's visit comes days after Syrian allies Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the United Nations that would have condemned the Assad regime's crackdown on dissent and calling on him to transfer some of his powers to his deputy. The Syrian government had rejected the Arab plan as intervention in Syria's internal affairs.

Thousands of Syrians cheered Russia's foreign minister Tuesday as he arrived in Damascus.

"Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life," Lavrov later told Assad, according to Russian state-run news agency ITAR-Tass."

Lavrov also said Assad is ready for dialogue with the opposition.

"It's clear that efforts to stop the violence should be accompanied by the beginning of dialogue among the political forces," he said. "Today we received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria for this work."

Repeated efforts by the Arab League and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by the Syrian opposition, which refuses to hold talks amid the crackdown and says it will accept nothing less than the regime's downfall.

The violence, meanwhile, continued with regime forces keeping up an assault on Homs, Syria's third largest city. Activists reported that at least 15 people, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed in violence across the country.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March, the U.N. said early last month. Hundreds more are believe to have been killed since then, but the U.N. says the chaos in the country has made it impossible to cross-check the figures.

Syria has blocked access to trouble spots and prevented independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side. The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime.

Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed suffered a setback over the weekend when efforts by the U.S. and its allies in the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence in Syria were blocked by Russia and China.

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council said Tuesday that it was pulling its ambassadors from Syria because of Assad's refusal to accept Arab attempts to end the bloodshed. The GCC, which includes Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, as well as Bahrain, Kuwait Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, also said it was asking Syria to recall its ambassadors.

Also, France, Italy and Spain announced they were recalling their ambassadors to Syria for consultations — in what appeared to be coordinated European diplomatic pressure to isolate Assad as the Russian foreign minister arrived. The U.S. closed its Damascus embassy on Monday, while Britain recalled its ambassador.

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also called the Security Council veto a "fiasco" and said his country cannot remain silent about the massacres in Syria and will continue to support the Arab League efforts.

"We will launch a new initiative with countries that stand by the Syrian people instead of the regime," Erdogan said without elaborating.

It was not clear what kind of steps Turkey might be planning. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for "friends of democratic Syria" to unite and rally against Assad's regime, previewing the possible formation of a group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition from outside the U.N.

The central city of Homs was the site of the deadliest assault of the uprising on Saturday, when more than 200 people were killed in an overnight bombardment hours before the U.N. vote.

An activist said tanks were closing in on the rebel-held Baba Amr district in Homs, tightening a months-long siege of the area.

"The shelling has been going on for days and the siege is getting worse. We are short of everything including food and medical supplies," said an activist who identified himself only by his first name, Omar. "People here have not slept for days."

The British-based Observatory for Human Rights said troops were attempting to storm the Baba Amr, Khaldiyeh and Bayada districts and said at least nine civilians were killed in the shelling. It also reported that a 15-year-old boy was shot to death by security forces who stormed the town of Houleh, in Homs province.

The Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist network also reported heavy machine gun fire in the rebel-controlled Damascus suburb of Zabadani, saying five people were killed.

Syrian Arab News Agency SANA said three mortar shells struck the Homs refinery, one of the country's two oil refineries, blaming "armed terrorist groups" for the shelling. It did not elaborate or whether the shelling resulted in any damage. It also said armed groups attacked several security checkpoints in Homs Tuesday.

Lavrov's convoy snaked its way along the Mazzeh boulevard among a sea of Assad supporters who turned up to express gratitude for Moscow's supportive stance. The foreign minister and Russia's foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov were headed to the presidential palace to meet with Assad.

"Thank you Russia and China" read one banner that had the photos of both Assad and the Russian president. Many stood under rain carrying Syrian flags as well as the red, blue and white Russian banner and balloons.

"I am here to thank Russia for its stand in the face of the world conspiracy against Syria," said Manya Abbad, 45, as she waited for Lavrov's convoy Tuesday. "I wish the Arabs adopted similar stances."

Lavrov said it was important that Arab nations "live in peace and harmony."

"Each leader in each country ought to be aware of their share of responsibility. You are aware of yours," Russian news agencies Novosti and ITAR-Tass quoted him as telling Assad.

It quoted Assad, in turn, as saying Russia's position has played "a key role in saving our motherland."

___

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Jim Heintz in Moscow and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey contributed to this report.

Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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