UNITED NATIONS // The previously divided UN Security Council sent a strong and united message to the Syrian government and opposition yesterday to immediately implement proposals by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the year-long bloodshed.
A non-binding statement approved by the 15 council members and read at a formal meeting spells out Mr Annan's proposals, which include a ceasefire first by the Syrian government, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide humanitarian aid, and inclusive Syrian-led political talks "to address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian people".
In a bid to win support from Russia and China, which have twice vetoed European and US-backed resolutions condemning President Bashar Al Assad's violent repression of protesters, France watered down the statement to eliminate possible consideration of "further measures" that could include sanctions or military action.
Instead, the presidential statement now asks Mr Annan to update the council regularly on the progress of his mission and says that "in the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate."
A presidential statement, which needs approval from all council members, becomes part of the council's permanent record. It is stronger than a press statement, which does not. But unlike resolutions, neither statement is legally binding.
The governments of the 15 council nations had been given until 9am yesterday to raise any objections to the text of the statement. No country did so.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the UN Security Council statement on Syria a "positive step" toward bringing peace and change after a year of bloodshed. She is urging "all Syrians who love their country" to embrace the plan outlined by mediator Kofi Annan. And she says President Bashar Assad's regime should commit to it or face increasing pressure and isolation. Speaking to reporters Mrs Clinton commended the council for agreeing yesterday on a "strong statement" that demands an end to violence, and spells out Mr Annan's proposals, ranging from guaranteed humanitarian access to the start of a political dialogue.
Russia and China had called the earlier resolutions unbalanced, saying they demanded an end only to government attacks, not ones by the opposition. Moscow also argued that the resolutions promoted regime change in Syria and expressed fear of outside intervention to support the rebels, as happened in Libya.
"The most important [thing] is that there are no ultimate demands there, there are no threats, and no theses which would predetermine who carries more guilt," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said of the statement in Berlin, where he met his German counterpart.
France's UN Ambassador Gerard Araud said, "It's not a question of threat or of ultimatum. We are expressing our support to Mr Kofi Annan."
Germany's UN Ambassador Peter Wittig and US Ambassador Susan Rice expressed hope that agreement on the statement would lead to greater unity in the council on Syria, where well over 8,000 people have died in violence over the past year, according to the UN
"We hope that this will change the dynamic on the ground," Mr Wittig said. "This is a newly found unity of the council which we welcome after this rather sad track record of the two double-vetoes in the past, and it shows nobody can really have an interest of mayhem in the region."
Ms Rice called the presidential statement "a modest step ... forward" and urged Syrian authorities "to respond swiftly and positively".
In Syria, opposition activists said the army used tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft guns on the Damascus suburbs of Harasta and Irbin early yesterday, which were retaken from rebels two months ago but have seen renewed insurgency in recent days.
Elsewhere the army fired mortars into the Khalidiya district of Homs, while artillery targeted the rebel town of Rastan, north of Homs city, in central Syria.
Video also showed shelling of the ancient Apamea castle at Qalat Mudiq, near Hama.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said two people died in the southern city of Deraa when the army opened fire after a bomb had hit a military convoy, killing two soldiers. It added that two girls died in gunfire in Qalat Mudiq.
* Associated Press and Reuters