Russia calls for Syrian violence to end 'immediately'
BEIRUT // Russia urged the Syrian regime and opposition rebel fighters yesterday to "immediately" halt the violence that has killed thousands and to deal with acute humanitarian problems hitting the country.
Russia's foreign ministry said it told Syria's ambassador to Moscow the "violence must end immediately, no matter where it comes from".
The slight change in Russia's tone on the crisis came as Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, also yesterday shot down rumours he was considering granting asylum to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.
In a statement, the foreign ministry also stressed the "critical need to solve acute humanitarian problems in Syria", as a senior United Nations humanitarian official arrived in Damascus yesterday.
A Syrian Red Crescent aid team yesterday made it into Homs, one of the worst-hit cities and with severe shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. A seven-truck convoy of aid supplies has been waiting for permission to enter since Friday.
Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, made her way from the capital to Homs, a UN spokesperson said.
While in Damascus Ms Amos - who this month was denied entry to the country - met Syria's foreign minister, Walid Moallem.
She previously said her visit aimed "to urge all sides to allow unhindered access for humanitarian relief workers so they can evacuate the wounded and deliver essential supplies".
Despite growing international condemnation and pressure to end the violence, in comments published yesterday by the state news agency Sana, Mr Al Assad said Syrians would continue to confront "foreign-backed terrorism", which the regime has blamed for the bloodshed.
In Washington, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, said the United States was reviewing possible military action.
"We are reviewing all possible additional steps that can be taken with our international partners to support efforts to protect the Syrian people, end the violence, and ensure regional stability, including potential military options if necessary," Mr Panetta said in written testimony prepared for a Senate armed services committee hearing yesterday.
"Although we will not rule out any future course of action, currently the administration is focusing on diplomatic and political approaches rather than a military intervention."
Speaking on Tuesday, US President Barack Obama rejected the idea of unilateral American military action, saying it would be a mistake. But he stressed it was only a matter of time before Mr Al Assad left office.
"For us to take military action unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there is some simple solution, I think is a mistake," Mr Obama said during a news conference.
"What happened in Libya was we mobilised the international community, had a UN Security Council mandate, had the full cooperation of the region, Arab states, and we knew that we could execute very effectively in a relatively short period of time. This is a much more complicated situation."
US military officials have warned Syria's air defences are five times more powerful than Libya's.
And Marine General James Mattis, the US miliary commander in the Middle East, told the Senate armed services committee a significant military commitment would be needed just to create the safe havens in Syria that some members of the Syrian opposition have urged.
"I think he [Mr Al Assad] will continue to employ heavier and heavier weapons on his people. I think it will get worse before it gets better," he said.
Washington is now trying to build support for a new UN Security Council resolution demanding an end to the violence as well as unrestricted humanitarian access.
Russia and China have previously vetoed Security Council resolutions calling for tougher action against the Syrian government, which is accused of killing thousands of its own citizens.
The most recent UN estimate placed the number of people killed since the uprising began a year ago at more than 7,500.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights yesterday said as many as 8,500 had died, including more than 6,000 civilians, close to 2,000 members of the security forces and around 400 rebel soldiers.
Syrian tanks reportedly shelled districts of Homs on Tuesday night, while attacks were also reported in areas including Deraa province where the revolt began a year ago.
Activists said a bridge and tunnel near the border with Lebanon that had been used as an escape path for people fleeing Homs province were also bombed.
The Syrian National Council, an opposition alliance, said yesterday tanks and troop carriers were headed in the direction of the province of Idlib, where it said "several martyrs were killed".
These reports could not be independently verified.
Thousands of Syrians have fled across the border to neighbouring Lebanon to escape the fighting.
* With additional reporting by Bloomberg, the Associated Press, Agence-France Presse and Reuters