Syrian forces kill 72 as Annan arrives for talks

UN humanitarian chief plans to meet Syrian opposition; Arab League chief urges Annan to push for "immediate ceasefire".

Damaged houses, vehicles in Homs, Syria_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Damaged houses, vehicles in Homs, Syria_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
BEIRUT - UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan arrived in Damascus on Saturday to press President Bashar Assad for a political solution to Syria's year-long uprising and bloody crackdown in which thousands of people have been killed.
Airport sources said Annan headed for a hotel after Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad met him at the airport.
Annan's trip to Damascus followed a violent day in which activists said Assad's forces killed at least 72 people as they bombarded parts of the rebellious city of Homs and sought to deter demonstrators and crush insurgents elsewhere.
Arab foreign ministers were due to hold talks in Cairo with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Russia and China vetoed a UN draft resolution last month which would have backed an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside.
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly deadly struggle that began as a mainly peaceful protest movement a year ago and now appears to be sliding into civil war.
The United Nations estimates that Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Annan urged to ensure immediate ceasefire
Annan discussed his mission with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby.
"I have very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure that there must be an immediate ceasefire," Ban told reporters in New York after the call. After a ceasefire, he said, there should be "inclusive political solutions" found through dialogue.
Annan also plans to meet the Syrian opposition before leaving the country on Sunday. He has called for a political solution, but dissidents say the time for dialogue has passed.
Russia could play a vital role in any push for a managed transition in Syria, although it has resisted Western and Arab demands for Assad to quit, saying no such outcome of negotiations can be predetermined or imposed from outside.
"If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any UN resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria.
Germany suggested Vladimir Putin's victory in Russia's presidential election last Sunday might lead to a policy change.
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Damaged property in Homs, Syria (Reuters)
Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against his Western and Arab critics.
A Russian diplomat said this week Assad was battling al-Qaida-backed militants, including 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if Syrian troops withdrew.
The Syrian opposition denies any al-Qaida role in the uprising, but Islamists are among those who have taken up arms against Assad. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said five soldiers were killed when army deserters attacked their troop carrier in the southern province of Deraa.
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US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, will meet in New York on Monday on the sidelines of a special UN Security Council ministerial meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be a central topic.
Others taking part in the council session are Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague. China will be represented at the ambassadorial level.