International peace envoy Kofi Annan was expected to head to China on Monday after asking Russia to back his mission to end fighting in Syria despite Moscow’s differences with Western and Arab states over who is to blame for the conflict, as a rights group accused the Syrian regime of using children as human shields.
Forces loyal to Assad pounded Homs and clashed with rebels in other opposition strongholds on Sunday, fighting which Syrian activists said killed as many as 70 people, Al Arabiya reported. Syrian state media said six “terrorists” had died.
Russia said Annan had its full support and that his mission could be the last chance to avoid a protracted and bloody civil war but would need more time.
It also suggested foreign support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s foes was the main obstacle to peace, while Western and Arab officials prepared for a “Friends of the Syrian People” meeting on ways to help the disparate opposition.
Annan’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, said he had “very candid and comprehensive discussions” in Moscow. Annan was “grateful for Russia’s firm support for his mediation efforts in order to reach a swift and peaceful solution to this bloody conflict” and asked Russia to continue providing support.
It was not clear whether Moscow would increase pressure on Assad to comply with Annan’s peace plan, which includes demands for a ceasefire, the immediate withdrawal of heavy armor from residential areas and access for humanitarian aid.
Russia and China have shielded Assad from U.N. Security Council condemnation by vetoing two Western-backed resolutions over the bloodshed, but approved a Security Council statement this week endorsing Annan's mission.
The former U.N. chief was expected to leave Moscow for China, which joined Russia in the vetoes, on Monday.
Western and Arab leaders are due to meet in Istanbul on April 1 to discuss a political transition and the Arab League and Turkey were pressing various parts of the Syrian opposition to gather in the city on Monday and Tuesday to try to unite.
Waleed al-Faris, an opposition activist from Homs, told Reuters Sunday’s shelling, using tank and mortar fire, was the worst he had seen. “There are ten dead and hundreds wounded,” he said.
Government forces and rebels also clashed in the southern province of Deraa, birthplace of the revolt.
“Thousands of soldiers and over a hundred military vehicles are attempting to enter the area of Lahat in Deraa province today, but they are clashing with rebels,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A U.S.-based human rights group accused Assad’s forces of using human shields in northern Syria in their efforts to crush the rebellion, which began more than a year ago.
HRW says Syrian forces use human shields
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said people were forced to walk in front of advancing troops and that residents reported government forces placing children on tanks and inside security buses.
“The Syrian army’s use of human shields is yet another reason why the U.N. Security Council should refer Syria to the International Criminal Court,” said Ole Solvang, a HRW emergencies researcher.
The New York-based rights group, in a report on Sunday, quoted residents from Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib saying Assad loyalists had forced them to march in front of advancing army offensives this month to retake control of areas that had fallen into the hands of the opposition.
“Syrian government forces have endangered local residents by forcing them to march in front of the army during recent arrest operations, troop movements, and attacks on towns and villages in northern Syria,” it said.
HRW published videos, obtained from opposition activists, in which people in civilian clothes walk in front of several armed soldiers and infantry fighting vehicles. Activists say the army had compelled the men to walk in front to protect the soldiers.
The statement said that residents reported government forces placing children on tanks and inside security buses.
It was impossible to verify reports independently because Syrian authorities have prevented foreign journalists and human rights workers from entering affected areas.
The United Nations says around 8,000 people have been killed. Syria says rebels have killed about 3,000 members of the security forces and blames the violence on “terrorist” gangs.
Last chance for Syria
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who will join U.S. President Barack Obama for a nuclear security summit in South Korea on Monday, told Annan, the Syria envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, he appreciated his efforts.
“This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a long-lasting and bloody civil war. Therefore we will offer you our full support at any level and in various ways in those areas, of course, in which Russia is capable of providing support.”
Obama, already in Seoul, discussed how to get non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition on Sunday with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.
Western and Arab states have urged Assad to step aside to end the violence. Russia, a close ally of Assad, said he is ready to talk to his foes about reform and it is the rebels who must be pressed to negotiate.
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov wrote on Twitter after the Annan meeting that “the (Syrian) authorities appear to be ready to carry this out,” according to AFP.
Moscow has in recent weeks tried to play down its sway over Assad, accusing him of “making a lot of mistakes” and noting that he often refused to listen to Russia's suggestions on ending the crisis.
Western powers have also doubted Assad’s desire to negotiate -- the Syrian leader has shown few signs of complying with Annan’s peace plan. They have been calling for him to go since last year.
The Arab League’s secretary general Nabil al-Arabi however said he did not expect a call for Assad’s resignation to come up at the group’s annual summit in Iraq later this month.