Annan 'optimistic' after Syria meeting

Joint UN-Arab League envoy acknowledges that it would be difficult to reach a deal to halt the bloodshed.

    Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria has said he was optimistic after a second round of talks with President Bashar al-Assad but acknowledged it would be difficult to reach a deal to halt the bloodshed.

    "It's going to be tough. It's going to be difficult but we have to have hope," he told reporters in Damascus on Sunday. "I am optimistic for several reasons," he said, citing a general desire for peace in Syria.

    Annan told reporters he had left "concrete proposals" with Assad, and called for an immediate halt to the killings in Syria, where the United Nations says Assad's forces have killed 7,500 people in a year-long crackdown on protests. Authorities say 2,000 soldiers have been killed by insurgents.

    "I have urged the president to heed the African proverb which says you cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail," Annan said. Syria needed to embrace change and reform, he said.

    "You have to start by stopping the killings and the misery and the abuses that [are] going on today and then give time [for a] political settlement," he said.

    Annan, who also met religious leaders in Damascus on Sunday, said the situation was "so bad and so dangerous" that all Syrians bore a responsibility to "help heal and reconcile this nation". He is expected to leave Damascus later on Sunday for Qatar.

    Annan's mission has coincided with a Syrian military offensive against opposition strongholds in the northwest.

    Mouna Ghanem, one of the opposition leaders who met with Kofi Annan, told Al Jazeera on the phone from Damascus that activists used the opportunity with the UN envoy to propose an international mediation group.

    "We explained to him the situation on the ground and the necessity to work to stop the violence immediately, and also to find ways to solve the armed conflict on the ground," she said.

    Responding to a question concerning the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition, Ghanem replied: "This problem was created by some countries who contributed to this division."

    Three soldiers and a civilian were killed in fighting in the village of Janoudiya in Idlib province on Sunday morning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

    Its British-based director, Rami Abdulrahman, said Idlib city was quieter after Saturday's tank-led assault, suggesting outgunned rebels had withdrawn or decided not to confront the army, which has launched an offensive in the northwest after recapturing insurgent strongholds in the city of Homs last week.

    The Observatory said 39 civilians, including 25 in Idlib province, were killed on Saturday, along with 39 opposition fighters and 20 government soldiers, giving an overall death toll of 98.

    Al Jazeera's Sue Turton reported on Sunday that bout 1,000 Free Syrian Army soldiers trying to hold off the Syrian army offensive there.

    "Many of residents who were injured trying to get to hospital were stopped by the snipers, positioned on the various buildings," she said.

    In a phone interview with Al Jazeera, Abu Hani, a resident of Idlib, described the conditions in local hospitals as shocking.

    "After shelling the city, security forces began a house-to-house search for activists and protesters," he said. "And soldiers have been granted complete freedom to loot everything from homes and shops."

    Government forces, meanwhile, arrested students at Damascus University as they were planning an anti-government demonstration, the London-based observatory said.

    State-run news agency SANA reported that Syrian boxing champion Ghiath Tayfour was killed on Sunday by an "armed terrorist group" in the city of Aleppo.

    Tayfour, 43, was shot dead as he was driving his car near Aleppo University, according to the agency.

    Russian position

    Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, who met Annan in Cairo on Friday, told the Arab League his country was "not protecting any regime", but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone.

    He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow's stance.

    Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatari prime minister, who has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough. Syrian leaders must be held to account and political prisoners freed, he declared.

    Free Syrian Army's Riad al-Assad and Robert Baer, a former CIA officer, discuss Syria violence

    Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said shortcomings in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.

    Their position, he said, "gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people".

    The United States has drafted a fresh UN Security Council resolution, but Washington and Paris have said they are not optimistic it will be accepted.

    Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.

    They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there, opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid and support for Annan's peace efforts.

    But the exiled opposition Syrian National Council ruled out talks while Assad is in power.

    "Negotiations can never take place between the victim and torturer: Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition before starting any serious negotiations," it said.

    Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, will meet Lavrov in New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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