Peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi Monday held talks with Syria’s president on the "worrying" situation in the country, as Damascus fended off accusations its forces bombed a bakery killing at least 300 civilians.
The talks in the capital came as Russia played down fears President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would use chemical weapons against the armed opposition, saying to do so would amount to "political suicide".
"I had the honour to meet the president and as usual we exchanged views on the many steps to be taken in the future," Brahimi told reporters at his hotel, a day after he arrived to launch a fresh bid to end the conflict roiling the country.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy said the Syrian crisis was "always worrying", with more than 44,000 people killed since the uprising against Assad’s regime erupted in March last year, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Brahimi expressed hope that "all parties are in favor of a solution that draws Syrian people together."
"Assad expressed his views on the situation and I told him about my meetings with leaders in the region and outside," said the veteran Algerian diplomat who took over his present task from former U.N. chief Kofi Annan.
Brahimi last visited the country on October 19 for talks with Assad and other officials in a bid to clinch a temporary ceasefire for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha. Despite pledges, the truce did not hold.
His arrival in the country on Sunday coincided with reports that more than 300 people were killed in airstrike near a bakery in the town of Halfaya in the central Syrian province of Hama.
“There is no way to really know yet how many people were killed. When I got there, I could see piles of bodies all over the ground. There were women and children,” Samer al-Hamawi, an activist in the town of Halfaya, where the strike hit, told Reuters. “There are also dozens of wounded people”
Halfaya was seized by rebels last week as part of a campaign to push into new territories in the 21-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
The activists said the attack, in which many women and children were killed, amounted to a "massacre".
The official news agency SANA however on Monday blamed the killings on an "armed terrorist group" -- the term used by the regime to describe rebels fighting to topple Assad.
"An armed terrorist group attacked the town of Halfaya committing crimes against the population, killing many women and children," SANA said, adding that the Syrian army intervened during the assault and "killed and wounded many terrorists".
"Terrorists then shot video images to accuse the Syrian army when the international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi arrived in Syria," the agency said.
Video footage posted online by activists showed a bombed one-storey block and a crater in the road.
Bloodied bodies lay on the road, while others could be seen in the rubble. Men carried victims out on their backs, among them at least one woman. The video could not immediately be verified.
The raid also left 50 others wounded, many of them in critical condition, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of medics and activists on the ground.
During the summer, rights groups accused government forces of committing war crimes by dropping bombs and using artillery on or near several bakeries in the northern province of Aleppo.
One of the bloodiest attacks in the Syrian conflict was on a bread line in the Qadi Askar district of Aleppo city on August 16 that left 60 people dead, according to local hospital records.
Including those who died in Halfaya, a total of 198 people were killed on Sunday across Syria, according to figures given by the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of medics and activists on the ground.
The issue of chemical weapons in the hands of the Damascus regime, meanwhile, resurfaced again on Monday.
Russia said on Monday it would be "political suicide" for the government of Assad if it used chemical weapons against the armed opposition.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview released by the English-language state television channel RT that Assad had given Moscow repeated assurances he had no plans to order such an attack.
"I do not believe Syria would use chemical weapons," Lavrov said in comments translated by the channel into English. "It would be a political suicide for the government if it does."
Russia has remained Syria’s main ally throughout 21 months of violence that an opposition monitoring group says has claimed more than 44,000 lives.
It scuttled three rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Assad and condemned Washington for recognizing the Syrian opposition as the legitimate voice of the country’s citizens.