Russia, China join UN in Syria plea


In a major diplomatic blow for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia and China joined the UN Security Council today in voicing support for UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's bid to end violence that has brought Syria to the brink of civil war.

Western diplomats said the agreement on a statement voicing the "gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria" should be a wake-up call for Dr Assad, who has counted on support from his ally Russia to fend off international criticism of his year-long attempt to crush anti-government protests.

The statement threatens Syria with "further steps" if it fails to comply with Annan's six-point peace proposal, which calls for a cease-fire, political dialogue between government and opposition, and full access for aid agencies.

The US-European push for a council statement backing Mr Annan's mission came after Russia and China twice vetoed resolutions condemning Dr Assad's assault on demonstrators, which the United Nations says has killed well over 8,000 civilians. Unlike resolutions, which are legally binding and need nine votes in favor and no vetoes from the five permanent council members to pass, statements are generally non-binding but require unanimous support from the council.

Although the statement does not explicitly back an Arab League plan calling for Dr Assad to step aside, it does include Mr Annan's call for a political process that echoes that plan. It voices "full support for the efforts of (Annan) to bring an immediate end to all violence and human rights violations, secure humanitarian access, and facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system."

The statement also demands that the Syrian government stop fighting first, something Mr Annan and the West have called for.

"The Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers," it said.

Once the government forces stop fighting, Syrian authorities "should work with (Annan) to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said earlier today that Syria's crisis was extremely dangerous and had "massive repercussions" for the world, as more fighting erupted, with two Damascus suburbs coming under heavy tank bombardment.

"We do not know how events will unfold. But we do know that we all have a responsibility to work for a resolution of this profound and extremely dangerous crisis," Mr Ban said in a speech in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

The crisis has potentially massive repercussions for the region and the world, he said.

Forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad have made gains against rebels around the country in recent weeks, but the violence shows no sign of abating, with reports today of several army offensives.

Opposition activists said the army turned tank, artillery and anti-aircraft guns on the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Irbin today, which were retaken from rebels two months ago but have seen renewed insurgency in recent days.

The suburbs are a linked series of towns inhabited mostly by members of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, grown increasingly resentful at the domination of the Assads, who belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Elsewhere the army fired 11 mortar rounds into the Khalidiya district of Homs, the day after 14 people died in the same area from mortar attacks, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Artillery shells targeted the rebel town of Rastan, north of Homs city, in the centre of Syria, and Qalat Mudiq, northwest of Hama city, where an armoured personnel carrier came under fire.

One soldier was killed in the attack, activists said.