Assad 'favours gradual peace plan'


Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has suggested ending Syria's conflict on a step-by-step basis, starting with districts that have seen the worst violence, international mediator Kofi Annan told a press conference in Tehran today.

Mr Annan met Assad in Damascus yesterday at the start of a round of shuttle diplomacy to try to revive his plan for ending Syria's 16-month-old crisis.

He said Assad had suggested "building an approach from the ground up in some of the districts where we have extreme violence - to try and contain the violence in those districts and, step by step, build up and end the violence across the country".

Mr Annan, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, said he needed to discuss the proposal with the Syrian opposition and could not give further details. It was not clear how or where he planned to do this.

He insisted that regional heavyweight Iran should be involved in efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Syria crisis despite the West's firm rejection of a role for Tehran.

The United States and its Nato and Gulf Arab allies are opposed to involving the Islamic Republic, which strongly backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and is regarded as their main adversary in the Middle East.

Such diplomatic rifts have prevented effective international action to end the 16-month-old conflict in Syria.

"Iran has a role to play. And my presence here explains that I believe in that," Mr Annan said after the talks in Tehran "I have received encouragement and cooperation with the minister and the (Iranian) government," he added.

Washington has said any Iranian participation would be counter-productive.

After talks with Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Mr Annan flew to Baghdad. The French Foreign Ministry said he would present the conclusions of his tour to the Security Council in New York tomorrow.

Russia, a major Syrian ally, proposed what sounded like an alternative to the Western-backed, anti-Assad "Friends of Syria" forum, with an offer to visiting Syrian opposition groups to host regular meetings of Annan's "action group" of countries, which is more balanced between pro- and anti-Assad influences.

"We would welcome the organisation of a regular session of an 'action group' in Moscow. . . . In any case we see the relevance in carrying out such an event," Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying.

The Syrian National Council - the main opposition umbrella group in exile - is due to hold talks tomorrow with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Major powers agreed at a meeting with Mr Annan on June 30th that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but they remain at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.

Russia says the plan cannot pre-suppose that Assad will step down, but Western powers say he must go, and the Syrian opposition say that is their basic condition.

At least 17,129 people have been killed in Syria's 16-month-old revolt, according to the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It said 11,897 civilians or armed insurgents had been killed by Assad's forces, but that it could not determine how many fell into each category. It also estimated that 884 defectors had been killed.

The Observatory put the death toll among Syrian security forces loyal to Assad at 4,348.