Talks falter in Moscow as gun battles spread across Damascus

 

Moscow

As forces used helicopters to attack rebels in the capital Damascus yesterday, the diplomatic effort to find a way out of the international impasse over Syria appeared no closer to a solution. The UN envoy Kofi Annan left talks with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin yesterday afternoon making just brief comments that "hopefully" the UN Security Council can agree on a new Syria resolution.

"We have supported and continue to support your efforts to restore peace," Mr Putin told Mr Annan ahead of the talks. But Russia and China have repeatedly refused to back binding resolutions on Syria or call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, and there was little sign yesterday this has changed.

As the diplomatic effort rolled on, the fighting continued, with clashes in and around Damascus taking on a new intensity. Explosions could be heard in the capital yesterday, with fighting in at least four areas of the city. Regime forces backed by helicopter gunships took on rebels, and yesterday evening there were reports that a helicopter had been shot down.

The activists hope their operation could be the pivotal act in their 17-month battle to unseat President Assad. The regime, however, painted a different picture. "What is happening is some armed elements infiltrated Damascus and tried to make a move. But the security forces surrounded them and are still dealing with them," the Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi told Reuters.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Mr Annan once again called for an end to the violence, ahead of a UN Security Council vote on a Western-backed draft resolution today. All the major powers say they support Mr Annan's peace plan, but there are different ideas on the best way to achieve a breakthrough. The Western-backed draft calls for sanctions on Syria under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which can eventually lead to military force. Russia and China have said this is unacceptable, with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying on Monday that Western diplomats were trying to "blackmail" Russia into signing up to the resolution.

In China, the People's Daily ran an editorial yesterday that criticised intervention. "Several wars in this century prove that 'promoting democracy' and 'humanitarianism' are just a pretext for foreign powers to seek private gain," wrote the paper, known as a mouthpiece for the Communist Party, ahead of a meeting between the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and the Chinese President Hu Jintao today.

In Jordan, the British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Syrian refugees and refused to rule out military intervention. "Those nations that might block a Security Council resolution have to consider that, if they do so, they will be held responsible for the chaos and bloodshed that are becoming worse in Syria," said Mr Hague.

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