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Middle East

Russian visit ends in talk of peace as shells rain on Homs

Foreign Minister's visit to Damascus brings pledges from Assad but no end to his bloody crackdown

Russia thrust itself to the centre of faltering diplomatic efforts to curb the bloodshed in Syria yesterday, with its Foreign Minister insisting during a trip to Damascus that the regime was committed to stopping the violence even as the shells continued to rain down on the restive city of Homs.

Sergei Lavrov said after a meeting with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, that the embattled leader had pledged to talk to the opposition, hold a referendum on a new draft of the constitution and expand an Arab League monitoring mission.

Although similar promises during the past 11 months of unrest have resulted in little change, Mr Lavrov deemed the meeting "very useful". Russia's Interfax news agency quoted him as saying: "The President of Syria assured us he was completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from."

Earlier, Mr Lavrov received a rapturous welcome in Damascus, with crowds packing the roads along his route from the airport. Buses filled with chanting Assad supporters sped past with Syrian flags flying from the windows. "We love President Bashar al-Assad – do you love President Assad?" asked a beaming girl of about 12, as she browsed a street stall of regime paraphernalia for another trinket to match her Assad baseball cap, football scarf, T-shirt and badge.

But you do not have to venture far to see a different Damascus. Just outside the city centre towards the poorer, eastern suburbs that have seen outbursts of anti-regime unrest most shops were closed. The only public gathering was a queue snaking from a subsidised government bread shop, as residents jostled for the precious little cheap food available. There were no smiling children with Syrian flags painted on rosy cheeks. Instead, soldiers manned tense checkpoints, peering into every car that passed.

Beyond Damascus, the bombardment of the central city of Homs continued into a fourth day, with Syrian human rights groups estimating that another 15 people were killed. The government has so far refused media requests to visit Homs, making opposition and official accounts of events impossible to verify.

Back in the heart of the capital, it is hard to find anyone who will say a sceptical word. Their heroes of the day are the Russians and the Chinese, both of whom vetoed a UN Security Council resolution on Saturday calling for all sides to stop fighting and for Mr Assad to cede power. One vendor in the middle of a pro-Assad rally claimed he had sold 2,000 Syrian, 400 Russian and 200 Chinese flags.

But a bystander grumbled that they had closed the schools and bussed in students and civil servants to give the impression of support for the regime. Another said Mr Lavrov's trip was a waste of time: "I don't believe it will take us anywhere."

Quite what Russia came away with after yesterday's meeting was unclear. Britain, the US and Arab nations are pursuing punitive measures, slapping on economic sanctions and recalling diplomats as they struggle to forge a new strategy for dealing with the belligerent regime, which according to some reports has caused more than 6,000 deaths since March last year.

Nikolaos van Dam, author of The Struggle for Power in Syria, said Mr Assad may be more likely to yield to pressure from his Russian allies, especially because they supply Syria with arms.