Russia signals possible shift on Syria

Feb. 13, 2012 at 12:28 PM
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CAIRO, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- Russia, which has vetoed previous U.N. resolutions condemning violence in Syria, signaled Monday it may shift its stand amid fresh violence.

Russia is prepared to promote dialogue and a "regional security agreement" between gulf countries and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said.

But CNN reported it remained uncertain whether Lavrov 's comment indicated Russia would support the resolution Monday.

The comment came after Lavrov met with the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister, who had attended an Arab League meeting Sunday in Cairo.

The league is calling for a joint peacekeeping mission with the United Nations to oversee a cease-fire and has urged member states to cut ties to Syria and give political and financial support to the opposition in the country.

Syrian Ambassador to the Arab League Yousef Ahmad said his regime was "not interested" in any league resolution decided in its absence. The league suspended Syria's membership in November. Meanwhile, CNN reported renewed violence in Syria, where the Local Coordinating Committees, a network of opposition activists, reported more than 680 people died last week and more than 7,000 since the uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad began 11 months ago.

CNN reported Monday the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group, said tanks, armed personnel carriers and military trucks entered Idlib in northwest Syria, where four people were reported killed by gunfire from Syrian security forces.

In the restive city of Homs, two civilians were killed in shelling, and three soldiers were killed elsewhere in the Homs province after a failed army attempt to storm the town, the Observatory said.

Arab League ministers discussed a U.N.-Arab force of 3,000 observers, pan-Arab TV network al-Jazeera reported -- far larger than 200 or so observers in the league mission that was suspended last month.

The United Nations has historically deployed armed peacekeepers only with the host country's consent and when it believes there is peace to keep, al-Jazeera and The New York Times said.

Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, the controversial Sudanese general who led the earlier league mission, resigned from that post Sunday, contending he performed his role "with full integrity and transparency" but alleging the situation was skewed.

He was accused by opposition activists of bias toward the regime.

League Secretary-General Nabil al-Araby recommended appointing former Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdul Ilah Khatib, who was named U.N. special envoy to Libya last year, as Dabi's replacement.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had no immediate comment on the league's actions Sunday, but urged the world body last week to contribute to an expanded form of the Arab observer mission, which was set up to monitor Syria's compliance with a November cease-fire agreement that was never implemented.

He called the violence carried out on Syrian civilians "unacceptable."

The U.N. General Assembly planned a public debate Monday on Syria, including a draft Saudi proposal calling for support of the Arab League plan, an assembly statement said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay was to report on Syria's human-rights conduct.

Arab governments planned to put forward a General Assembly resolution condemning Syria and calling on U.N. members to endorse the league's call for a national unity government in Syria.

General Assembly resolutions are non-binding.

Tunisia Sunday offered to host a meeting of a "Friends of Syria" contact group, similar to the international alliance that brought pressure on Libya, organized by Arab and Western nations. The meeting would take place Feb. 24.

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, a key player in the league's efforts to bring peace to Syria, said he backed the proposal.

Syria broke a half-day lull in the regime's assault on the western city of Homs, near Lebanon, Sunday afternoon, killing at least 14 people, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights opposition group said. Twenty-six people were killed altogether in Syria Sunday, including eight government soldiers in Hama, it said.

The death toll is difficult to confirm because Syria has barred most foreign reporters from entering the country.

The Syrian army began distributing gas masks to its soldiers Sunday, the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reported, while opposition activists said Assad forces transferred grenades and mortars containing chemical agents to a Homs school building, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Both newspapers said opposition figures were concerned the moves could signal the regime's intention to use chemical weapons against its citizens.

Damascus had no immediate comment on the reports.

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