China to press for Syria ceasefire

 

China's special envoy to Syria is expected to press authorities for a ceasefire even as Beijing remains firmly opposed to any foreign intervention in the conflict.

Li Huaqing, a former Chinese ambassador to Syria, will meet Syrian government officials during his two-day visit. He is not expected to meet figures from the opposition seeking to overthrow authoritarian president Bashar Assad.

China has remained a key Syrian ally throughout the 11-month uprising against Assad. As international condemnation of the deadly crackdown on dissent has grown, China and Russia have protected Syria from condemnation by the UN Security Council.

Both countries fear such a resolution could lead to military intervention against Assad, as it did last year against Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

The Syrian regime agreed yesterday to allow visits by two other prominent international emissaries it had previously rebuffed - former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, the new special envoy to Syria, and UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos.

Mr Annan is to reach Damascus on Saturday representing the UN and the Arab League. Baroness Amos is to arrive on Wednesday and leave on Friday.

Baroness Amos said the aim of her visit is "to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies".

In a message welcoming her visit, Syria said she would be able to visit "some areas" - making it unlikely she will see some of the areas hardest-hit by Assad's forces, such as the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs, which government forces took from rebels last week after a month-long siege.

Activists say hundreds were killed in nearly four weeks of government shelling before troops seized the area. Syrian authorities have not allowed Red Cross aid teams to enter the area since then, despite assurances they would be able to. Activists accuse the regime of trying to hide the area's destruction.

The UN says more than 7,500 people have been killed since Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with protests calling for Assad's removal.

The protests have spread as Assad's forces have cracked down on dissent, and some in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops.

Activists put the death toll at more than 8,000.

A senior Russian diplomat said today that Moscow was remaining firm in its policy on the Syria crisis and urging the West to press the Syrian opposition to stop fighting Assad's regime.

Moscow last month blocked a UN Security Council resolution against Damascus and accused the West of fuelling the conflict by backing the opposition.

Deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters that "we are deeply convinced that we are right" and that the opposition should be urged to renounce violence.

German diplomats had urged Moscow to rethink its stance on Syria after Vladimir Putin's victory in Sunday's presidential election.

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