Syria shells rebel city as Assad spurns peace plan

Beirut

Syria launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north yesterday, bombarding its main city from all sides with tank shells, and clashing with rebel fighters.

President Bashar al-Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict. President Assad told the UN envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution was impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threatened the country. The opposition's political leadership also rejected dialogue, saying talk was impossible after a year-long crackdown in which the UN estimates more than 7,500 people have died.

Syrian forces have been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protest against the Assad regime. Many soldiers have joined the opposition to fight alongside civilians who have taken up arms as part of the loosely organised Free Syrian Army.

The visit to Damascus by Mr Annan is the centrepiece of an international attempt to find a solution to the worsening conflict amid sharp divisions among world powers and Arab countries over how to deal with the crisis.

Mr Annan planned a second round of talks with the Syrian president today, a UN statement said.

But Mr Annan's call for an immediate ceasefire and dialogue has been dismissed by both sides. In talks yesterday with President Assad, Mr Annan put "proposals on the table" for stopping violence, gaining access for humanitarian aid deliveries, and starting an "inclusive political dialogue". President Assad told Mr Annan the plan is doomed until the opposition is crushed.

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