Russia envoy says Assad 'committed' to ending bloodshed
Russia's foreign minister said after Damascus talks on Tuesday that President Bashar al-Assad was "fully committed" to ending the bloodshed in Syria even as regime tanks pounded the central city of Homs for a fourth straight day.
Sergei Lavrov said he had had a "very useful" meeting with Assad and that Moscow was eager to work towards a solution based on an Arab League plan that it had previously criticised.
"We (Russia) confirmed our readiness to act for a rapid solution to the crisis based on the plan put forward by the Arab League," said Lavrov, adding that Syria was also ready see an enlarged Arab League mission in the country, Russian news agencies said.
The pan-Arab bloc deployed an observer mission to Syria in December to oversee a plan to end bloodshed that has now lasted almost 11 months but suspended it late January after the mission's chief said that the violence had reached a new pitch of intensity.
The 22-nation League has since put forward a plan for Assad to hand his powers to Vice President Faruq al-Shara and a national unity government to oversee the preparation of democratic elections.
Lavrov said Syria was also pressing ahead with the slow-moving reform programme promised by Assad in a series of speeches last year and would soon announce the timetable for a referendum on a new constitution to replace the current one which enshrines the leading role of his Baath party.
At the opening of the talks, Lavrov said he was confident that the Syrian leader knew what he had to do.
"Every leader in every country should be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours," the Russian minister said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said Lavrov arrived to a "huge popular reception in appreciation of Russia's support to Syria, people and its reform programme."
State television aired footage of regime supporters waving Syrian and Russian flags as they lined the streets.
Many chanted: "Thank you Russia, thank you China," in reference to the two governments' use of their Security Council vetoes last week to block UN action against the Syrian regime.
The precise purpose of the Russian diplomatic mission has been kept tightly under wraps since it was first announced at the weekend.
Ahead of their arrival, reports had said Lavrov might try to persuade Assad to quit.
But the regime, which has been rocked by an uprising for almost 11 months, put on a show of defiance.
Tanks and artillery pounded the flashpoint central city of Homs for a fourth straight day, killing at least 15 civilians, according to activists, as the interior ministry vowed no let-up in the onslaught against "terrorist groups".
"Operations to hunt down terrorist groups will continue until security and order are re-established in all neighbourhoods of Homs and its environs," pledged an interior ministry statement carried by SANA.
Abu Rami, an activist in the city reached by AFP by telephone from Beirut, said shelling and rocket fire had continued through the night and into the day.
"There are about four blasts every five minutes," he said. "Since this morning the shelling has been concentrated in the neighbourhoods of Baba Amr, Inshaat and Jubar.
"The humanitarian situation is dire. No one can move around. There are snipers everywhere."
At least nine civilians and four soldiers were killed as the army attempted to storm the Khaldiyeh neighbourhood of the city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. One of the slain civilians was a woman.
Another six civilians were killed in Baba Amr, the Britain-based watchdog added.
Shooting thought to be from outgunned rebels echoed across Babr Amr through the morning in response to artillery barrage from besieging troops.
The opposition Syrian National Council joined the Free Syrian Army in issuing an appeal to businessmen across the Arab world to give money to the rebel force to help rectify the imbalance in firepower.
The latest clashes came after nearly 100 civilians were killed across Syria on Monday, the majority in Homs.
Human rights groups say more than 6,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the revolt mid-March. The UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, said at least 400 children have been killed.
Moscow sparked Western fury last week by joining Beijing in using its veto at the Security Council to block UN action against the Damascus regime.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called it a "travesty."
Beijing expressed hope Lavrov's visit would succeed, and said it was considering sending its own envoys to help resolve the conflict.
Syria's main Middle East ally, Iran was also to dispatch a deputy foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, to Damascus on Tuesday, its official IRNA news agency said.
Turkey, which shared Western anger over the Russian and Chinese vetoes, said it would launch a "new initiative" with like-minded countries which "stand by the Syrian people, not the regime."
A day after the United States closed its Damascus embassy, France, Italy amd Spain joined Britain and Belgium in recalling their ambassadors to Syria for consultations.
But the European Union stressed it had no plans to close its own mission in the Syrian capital.
© 2012 AFP