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‘The people of Syria must come to a political agreement’

Kofi Annan says it is for Syrians to find a solution to the crisis but the US and Russia disagreed on whether Bashar Al Assad should step aside.

BEIRUT // World powers meeting in Geneva yesterday adopted a version of special envoy Kofi Annan's Syria plan that left open the question of President Bashar Al Assad's role in a transition government.

Representatives from the United States, Russia, Turkey and Arab states met for a conference called by Mr Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria, aimed at forging a political solution to end the 16-month conflict.

Mr Annan said yesterday it was "for the people of Syria to come to a political agreement".

"The hard work starts now," he said. "We must work together to implement what has been agreed."

He had warned that if countries seeking to end the bloodshed failed to act, they risked facing an international crisis of "grave severity".

The negotiating text for the conference called for establishing a transitional government of national unity, with full executive powers, which could include members of the current Syrian government, the opposition and other groups. It would oversee the drafting of a new constitution, as well as elections.

Russia and China have so far failed to agree with the US and other western states over the question of Mr Al Assad's role in a transitional government.

Moscow had refused to support calls for the Syrian president to step down.

"How exactly the work on a transition to a new stage is conducted will be decided by the Syrians themselves," said Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, adding that Russia had convinced other world powers that it would be "unacceptable" to exclude any party from the transition process.

But Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said yesterday that "Assad will still have to go".

"What we have done here is to strip away the fiction that he and those with blood on their hands can stay in power," Mrs Clinton said.

The proposal discussed did not explicitly state Mr Al Assad must step aside, but said a unity government would exclude figures "whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".

"Ultimately, we want to stop the bloodshed in Syria. If that comes through political dialogue, we are willing to do that," said Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council.

"We are not willing to negotiate [with] Mr Al Assad and those who have murdered Syrians. We are not going to negotiate unless they leave Syria."

Ahead of the meeting, Human Rights Watch said any transition plan for Syria should include accountability for serious abuses.

"In tomorrow's Syria, torturers and abusers should be on trial, not in power," Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

"Preserving rule of law is critical, but that includes making accountable the security services that have acted as the real power brokers for 40 years."

Yesterday's conference was expected to include representatives from the US and European countries, Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar. Saudi Arabia and Iran were not invited. Russia reportedly objected to the involvement of Saudi Arabia, which has supported elements of the Syrian opposition, while the US did not want Iran, an ally of the Syrian regime, to attend.

In an interview broadcast on Iranian television this week, Mr Al Assad dismissed the idea of any solution to the crisis being imposed from outside Syria.

"We will not accept any non-Syrian, non-national model, whether it comes from big countries or friendly countries," he said. "No one knows how to solve Syria's problems as well as we do."

As the diplomatic wrangling continues outside the country, the situation on the ground in Syria appears to be worsening by the day. On Thursday alone, opposition groups reported 125 people killed in violence across the country - one of the worst death-tolls in a single day of fighting.

At least 42 people were killed yesterday, according to the UK-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. These figures could not be independently verified.

The group reported that hundreds were trapped by violence in the town of Douma near Damascus, which has been under siege for weeks. The Observatory reported further violence in areas including Rastan, Deir Ezzor and in Idleb province.

Fighting has increased sharply in the last two weeks, after the UN's observer mission to Syria - part of Mr Annan's peace plan - suspended its work. After coming under attack several times, the 300-member team, which was unarmed, said it was not safe to operate in such conditions.

Sana, the Syrian state news agency, yesterday reported that authorities in Idleb had "confronted an armed terrorist group" using rocket-propelled grenades, in clashes that killed some of the "terrorists", the word the regime uses to describe the rebels.

In Aleppo, Sana reported that a blast occurred when an explosives-laden car was detonated, causing significant damage to nearby buildings. In Douma, the agency said authorities seized weapons stores used by rebel fighters.

"Scores" of rebels were also killed during clashes in the town of Deir Ezzor, according to Sana.



* With additional reports by Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters

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