President Bashar al-Assad was “fully committed” to ending the bloodshed in Syria, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has said after his talks with Assad in the country’s capital, Damascus.
“We (Russia) confirmed our readiness to act for a rapid solution to the crisis based on the plan put forward by the Arab League,” Lavrov said on Tuesday.
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.
He added that Syria was also ready to see an enlarged Arab League mission in the country, Russian news agencies said.
The development comes even as regime tanks pounded the central city of Homs for a fifth straight day.
Earlier in the day, large crowds greeted Lavrov as his convoy drove to Damascus from the airport, according to Syrian state television.
Lavrov was expected to use his visit to press Assad into implementing democratic reforms after Russia and China vetoed any UN-backed measures against the Syrian government over its crackdown on the 11-month uprising.
Both Russia and China have faced international condemnation after vetoing the UN resolution. But Lavrov said ahead of his visit that condemnation of Moscow’s veto had verged on “hysteria”.
Moscow had sought “the swiftest stabilisation of the situation in Syria on the basis of the swiftest implementation of democratic reforms whose time has come”, he said.
Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands, reporting from Moscow said that though expectations for the effect of Lavrov’s visit on the Assad regime are low, the Russian foreign minister may be looking to engage with the Syrian opposition as well as the nation’s leadership.
In engaging with the opposition, our correspondent said Lavrov may be in search of moderates within the movement.
Sergei Srokan, a Russian political analyst said in finding the moderates in the opposition, Lavrov could show that “all those calling for President Assad to immediately step down don’t represent even the whole of the Syrian opposition.”
The Al Jazeera correspondent said that the presence of moderates within the opposition could be important, because what Moscow – who have had a long relationship of trade and arms sales with Damascus – wants to avoid is “a catastrophic collapse as we’ve seen in Libya”.
The Russian initiative came as Italy recalled its ambassador from Syria for consultations on Tuesday. It said its embassy would remain open and “continue to follow with maximum attention developments in an extremely grave crisis”.
The move followed similar announcements from the United States, which shut its embassy in Damascus, and Belgium and Britain, which recalled their ambassadors on Monday.
In another sign of increasing pressure on the Assad government, Turkey said it was preparing a new initiative to end the bloodshed in Syria.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, said on Tuesday that the initiative would involve countries that stand by the people and not the Assad government, describing the recent Security Council resolution veto as “a fiasco for the civilised world”.
“Those turning a blind eye to what’s going on and those not reacting the way they should will suffer the consequences as if they were fuelling the bloodshed themselves,” he said.
The Turkish prime minister went on to criticise the five day military-led assault on the city of Homs, comparing it to the 1982 Hama massacre in which 17,000 – 40,000 Syrians are said to have died.
“No-one has been called to account for the Hama massacre – but you can be sure it will be asked for Homs sooner or later,” said Erdogan on Tuesday.
Despite the diplomatic pressure, the violence continued in the key opposition stronghold of Homs, where witnesses said tanks and snipers began firing on residential areas from dawn on Tuesday.
Dozens of people have been killed in the military assault, according to activists.
Abu Abdo Alhomsy, an activist of a revolutionary council in Homs, described to Al Jazeera an attack on Tuesday on the city as live pictures showed smoke billowing into the sky.
‘Snipers are everywhere’
The rocket shelling didn’t stop through the night. The rocket shelling and the mortar bombing is all around Homs,” Alhomsy said.
“The people don’t have bread to eat. The condition in the neighbourhood is quite miserable. Snipers are everywhere. We are just waiting to be killed. We don’t know what to do.”
Homs resident says residents of the Syrian city are ‘waiting to be killed’ [Al Jazeera]
Syrian authorities, who have denied firing on houses, said security forces killed “tens of terrorists” in Homs on Monday morning. An interior ministry statement said six members of the security forces were killed in the clashes.
Syrian state television has accused “armed gangs” of being behind the latest violence in Homs.
Activists and witnesses said the army had been shelling Bab Amr “indiscriminately” since Sunday morning.
The death toll in Syria rose to at least 88 people over the weekend – one of the bloodiest since the uprising against Assad’s government erupted last March.
Opposition groups say at least 6,000 people have now been killed in Syria.