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Syria Continues Drive to Retake Rebel Strongholds as Diplomacy Suffers a Setback (NY) TIMES) By HALA DROUBI BEIRUT, Lebanon 03/25/12)Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/25/world/middleeast/syria-reportedly-continues-drive-to-retake-rebel-strongholds.html NEW YORK TIMES NEW YORK TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian troops continued their drive on Saturday to retake rebel strongholds, even as there were indications that diplomatic efforts to end the violence could still prove elusive just days after Western officials had claimed a breakthrough.

Those officials had been encouraged by a United Nations vote last week in which Russia and China, after previously blocking Security Council action on Syria, joined a statement supporting an attempt to broker a cease-fire.

But on Saturday — a day before scheduled talks in Moscow with a United Nations envoy — a senior Kremlin adviser indicated that Russia continues to have a sharply different view than the United States and other Western countries, placing the main burden to stop the fighting on opposition forces, rather than the Syrian government.

“The main thing is to convince the Syrian opposition to come to the negotiating table with representatives of the authorities, and to achieve a peaceful solution to the crisis,” the adviser, Sergei E. Prikhodko, told the Itar-Tass news agency.

That view contrasts with the reactions of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the British foreign secretary, who responded to the Security Council vote by urging the Syrian government to act first and immediately pull back its forces from population centers, echoing the text of the statement.

While the uprising last year started with peaceful protests, army defectors and others have since taken up arms against the government after months of a brutal crackdown.

On Saturday, Syrian troops intensified a renewed attack against the beleaguered central city of Homs, activists said. The city was the site of a major offensive earlier this year that heavily damaged the restive neighborhood of Baba Amr, but had been calmer in recent weeks.

The government had said that assault had pacified the city, but many opposition fighters appeared to have just moved to other neighborhoods. On Saturday, activists reported that troops continued an assault on the neighborhood of Khaldiyeh that had started last week.

Omar Idilbi, with the Local Coordinating Committees, an activist group, said that Khaldiyeh was one of several neighborhoods being shelled. His group put the number of dead in the city from Saturday’s fighting at 24, out of 45 killed Saturday throughout Syria.

“There is not one neighborhood in Homs that doesn’t have members of the F.S.A. in it, even Baba Amr,” he said, referring to the loose- knit rebel militias, the Free Syrian Army. “That’s why the shelling continues.”

Abo Mohammed, an activist in Khaldiyeh reached through Skype, said: “There are kids here, and they’re seeing the dead bodies on the streets. You can’t hide them anymore.”

As has been true since the start of the conflict, reports are difficult to confirm, since the country has severely restricted entry by foreign reporters.

Troops also continued their attempts to flush rebels from areas north of Homs, entering the town of Saraqeb in Idlib Province. The London- based Syrian Observatory, another activist group, said tanks had entered the city and troops were arresting residents.

An activist in Turkey, who goes by the name Menhal and who recently fled Saraqeb, said people in the town reached by phone said it was bombarded by tank fire. “The situation is horrible,” he said by telephone. “I don’t know what more to say. They are looting stores and destroying them, burning houses, and there are many wounded people, and God, many wounded kids, many wounded kids.”

The diplomatic efforts to end the violence are expected to continue Sunday, when Kofi Annan, the special representative of the United Nations and the Arab League, is scheduled to meet with Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, and its foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov. Mr. Annan is then expected to continue to China for more talks.

Mrs. Clinton has sought to portray Russia’s backing of the United Nations Security Council statement in support of Mr. Annan’s mission as an important shift, demonstrating new international unity.

“The Council has now spoken with one voice,” Mrs. Clinton said Wednesday, calling for the pullback of government forces and the beginning of a Syrian-led political process “that will lead to a democratic transition.”

But the comments from the Kremlin on Saturday suggested that there was still a rift, and that Russia would continue to oppose efforts to oust Mr. Assad, its longtime ally.

The Kremlin adviser, Mr. Prikhodko, rather than focusing on Mr. Assad, said Russia believed that the violence could only be stopped by ending foreign support for the Syrian opposition.

He said that at the meeting with Mr. Annan on Sunday, Mr. Medvedev “will present our basic approach to the problem of the cease- fire and violence in Syria, which would be difficult to do without putting an end to the external fueling and political support of the armed opposition.”

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 03/25/12)


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