Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan, who has been named special envoy to Syria for the U.N. and Arab League, will head to Damascus on March 10, Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi told reporters on Monday.
Annan will be accompanied by his deputy, former Palestinian foreign minister Nasser al-Qudwa, on their first mission to Syria, where a government crackdown on dissent has left thousands dead in a year.
Arabi said that Qudwa, a nephew of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, and a member of current President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, had agreed to take on “this very difficult mission during a critical time for Syria.”
Qudwa was selected in consultation with UN chief Ban Ki-moon and Annan, who was named international troubleshooter to Syria on February 23, Arabi said in a statement.
More than 7,500 people have been killed in 11 months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the United Nations says, and international pressure has been growing for an initiative to end the deadly crackdown.
Annan and Qudwa are to serve under a mandate set out by a U.N. General Assembly resolution passed last month and Arab League resolutions on the crisis in Syria.
The resolution demands that Syria “cease all violence and protect its population,” free everyone detained in connection with the unrest, withdraw troops from urban areas and guarantee freedom of demonstration.
Echoing resolutions passed by the League, it insists on “full and unhindered access and movement” for Arab League monitors and international news media “to determine the truth about the situation on the ground.”
Stepping up peace efforts
Meanwhile, Russia and China, who twice blocked U.N. resolutions to condemn ally Syria, were Monday stepping efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis, as the Red Cross was again denied access to a battered rebel district.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was preparing for a meeting on Saturday in Cairo with his Arab counterparts to discuss its ally Syria due to the “urgency” of the crisis.
And China said it was sending a new envoy to Damascus and is ready to support international aid under the auspices of the United Nations or another “impartial” organization.
Lavrov’s remarks come a day after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal urged Moscow to “advise” Assad’s regime to stop its the “bloodshed and massacres.”
The diplomatic moves came as the International Committee of the Red Cross said Monday it had still not been granted permission to enter Baba Amr, the rebellious district of Homs overrun four days ago by regime forces.
“Negotiations are still ongoing,” ICRC spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.
And days after Britain and France joined the United States in closing their embassies in Damascus over security fears, Air France cancelled its Monday flight to the Syrian capital, citing the unrest sweeping the country.
Rebel fighters fled Baba Amr on Thursday in the face of a ground assault by regime forces following a month-long shelling blitz which the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said had killed some 700 people.
The ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society have sought in vain permission to enter Baba Amr, where hundreds of people are reported to have been killed and even more wounded.
The authorities say the relief agencies are being barred for their own safety due to the presence of bombs and landmines.
But Syrian anti-regime activists say the authorities are keeping the groups out in order to buy time to hide their “crimes.”
Ban has demanded unconditional humanitarian access to Syrian cities, saying there were “grisly” reports of summary executions and torture in Homs, Syria’s third largest city in the center of the country.