BEIJING // Kofi Annan is due in China for talks as he further outlines his initiative to end the spiralling violence in Syria that has cost thousands of lives.
The UN and Arab League envoy to Syria has already received a strong endorsement for his proposals for a ceasefire and talks from Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's president.
After talks with Mr Annan on Sunday, the outgoing Russian leader warned that the former UN secretary-general's peace plan could be "the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted, bloody civil war" as heavy fighting continued.
Mr Medvedev's support makes it more likely that China, which has stuck closely to Russia's line on Syria, will offer its public backing to Mr Annan's proposals. Mr Annan is due to arrive in Beijing today and his visit continues tomorrow.
At a news conference yesterday, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, indicated Beijing was keen for Mr Annan's mission to succeed.
"China values and supports the mediation efforts of Mr Annan and hopes this visit will allow in-depth discussions on a political resolution of the Syrian issue," he said, adding that China hoped for a "fair, peaceful and proper solution" to the crisis.
While they vetoed two western and Arab-backed UN Security Council resolutions that criticised the government of the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad, Russia and China have called for an end to the fighting.
Yesterday, Syrian troops shelled rebel-held neighbourhoods in Homs, the latest barrage in a bombardment that has lasted several days and appeared to be the groundwork for an assault to push the fighters out of the country's third largest city.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Local Coordination Committees (LCC) have been reporting shelling in Homs for days as Mr Al Assad's forces appear to be preparing for an operation to retake rebel-held neighbourhoods in Syria's third largest city. The LCC said 19 people were killed in Syria yesterday, nine of them in Homs.
Amateur videos posted online showed smoke from several areas in the city centre amid sounds of explosions. A resident said at some points the area was being hit by an average of four shells an hour.
Homs has been one of the cities hardest hit by the government crackdown on the uprising. Mr Al Assad's forces overran the rebel-held Baba Amr neighbourhood on March 1 but face resistance from other districts.
Also, Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus and recalled its ambassador as relations between the former allies continue to deteriorate. Ankara, once close to Damascus, is now one of Syria's most vocal critics.
Activities at the embassy in the Syrian capital are being "temporarily suspended", but Turkey's consulate in Aleppo will remain operational, a brief statement posted on the embassy's website said on Sunday night.
The embassy is being closed because of the poor security situation in Syria, a ministry official said on condition of anonymity in line with ministry regulations.
The Turkish ambassador and other diplomats will be returning to Turkey, he said.
Other countries, including the US, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have also closed embassies.
This month Russia and China indicated they agreed in principle to Mr Annan's efforts when, along with all other UN Security Council members, they supported a statement that warned of "further steps" if the Al Assad regime did not comply with his proposals.
Mr Annan's plan calls for a UN-supervised ceasefire, for troop movements and the use of heavy weaponry in cities to be suspended, and for aid agencies to be allowed to enter areas that have seen heavy fighting.
The plan also asks for talks between the government and opposition, and proposes an eventual Syrian-led transition to a democratic system, albeit without specifying a timescale. Mr Al Assad has been sceptical of the proposals, questioning who can speak for the fractured opposition.
By meeting Chinese officials, experts believe Mr Annan is likely to gain an understanding of what measures they will support, and he may also offer reassurances that his plan will not allow foreign military intervention of the kind that was seen in Libya, and which attracted heavy criticism from China. China insists it has a policy of "non-intervention" in the internal issues of other nations.
Russia has strong ties with the Syrian government, having acted as its key arms supplier, but China's opposition to moves designed to remove Mr Al Assad stem from insecurity over what effect foreign intervention in Syria may ultimately have at home.
China faces continuing instability in Tibet and Xinjiang in the west, and is sensitive to criticism of how it deals with unrest within or linked to these parts of the country.
Also, Beijing is concerned that calls for democratic reform of the kind that have swept the Arab world could spread and destabilise its own rule. "A forced regime change in Syria might have very bad domestic repercussions," said Zhang Qingmin, a professor in Peking University's School of International Studies.
* With additional reporting by Reuters and Agence France-Presse