Ahmed Elbatrawy

No end in sight for Syria violence

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(CNN) — Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, will meet Saturday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to seek an urgent end to all violence and human rights violations and to initiate efforts to promote a peaceful solution” to the violence that has wracked the country for nearly a year, his spokesman said Friday.

Annan will meet Saturday morning with the president and with other groups later in the day, said Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for Annan, who is a former secretary-general to the United Nations. Those others may include opposition, civil society and women’s groups, he said.

He will then spend the night in Syria to see if he can get a response on Sunday, Fawzi said.

The announcement came as the United Nations sought to ease Syria’s humanitarian crisis, with a top official proposing an aid relief plan for civilians devastated by fighting.

Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said she had submitted a proposal to Syria for “unhindered” aid-worker access and asked the government to respond urgently.

Her two-day visit to Syria focused on urging “all parties to agree on arrangements for humanitarian organizations to reach people in areas affected by fighting and violence,” Amos said in a statement.

She visited displaced Syrians on the Turkish side of the border and met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and other government officials in Damascus. “We have agreed on a joint preliminary humanitarian assessment mission to areas where people urgently need assistance,” she said of her talks with al-Moallem.

“While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organizations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies. A proposal has been submitted to the government of Syria and I ask them to consider this matter with the utmost urgency.”

Amos told reporters that the Syrian government “asked for more time to look at the agreement that I put to them.”

Arab League observers surveyed the crisis in Syrian cities for weeks before ending their monitoring mission in late January because of escalating violence. The mission started in December to observe how the government was complying with a league initiative to end violence.

Amos visited Homs and parts of the Baba Amr neighborhood — the anti-government bastion that endured weeks of government pounding.

“I was horrified by the destruction I saw,” she said. “Almost all the buildings had been destroyed and there were hardly any people left there. I am extremely concerned as to the whereabouts of the people who have been displaced from Baba Amr.”

Her trip ended as Annan prepared to visit Damascus on Saturday “to seek an urgent end to all violence and human rights violations and to initiate efforts to promote a peaceful solution.”

Annan, who was in Cairo for talks with the Arab League, cautioned against outside military intervention, telling reporters Thursday that it could worsen an already precarious situation.

“We have to be careful that we don’t introduce a medicine worse than the disease,” he said.

The anti-government uprising in Syria erupted last year during the height of the Arab Spring, the pro-democratic, grassroots outpourings in the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian government reacted fiercely to demonstrations from people with a variety of grievances. The violent clampdown on protests, however, spurred more unrest across the nation.

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World leaders and humanitarian organizations have condemned Syria’s offensive against protesters, but they have not been able to stop the violence. The United Nations says more than 7,500 have died since mid-March, and at least one activist group says more than 9,000 people have been killed.

On Friday, thousands took to the streets as part of weekly anti-government protests, which have been routinely targeted by security forces.

At least 70 people were killed in Syria on Friday, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. The toll includes 20 members of two families in an Idlib province town and 26 people in Homs. Other deaths were in Idlib, Damascus, Daraa, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo.

Videos posted Friday on YouTube from Homs purported to show 30 Syrian tanks moving toward the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Asheera, which the opposition says has been repeatedly shelled in recent days. Syrian forces were storming villages in the provinces of Hama and Idlib amid heavy gunfire to chase down military defectors, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition rights group.

Al-Assad’s government said security forces in those provinces were targeting “terrorists,” who were accused of using Israeli-made weapons to kill civilians, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said. Authorities seized weapons smuggled from Turkey into the Syrian countryside, the news outlet said.

CNN cannot independently confirm opposition or government reports of casualties or attacks from within Syria because the government has severely restricted the access of international journalists.

China is sending an envoy to the Middle East and Europe to push for a “fair solution” in Syria. This comes after China unveiled a peace plan calling for dialogue between al-Assad and the opposition.

Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Ming will begin a four-day trip Saturday to meet with government officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Friday, according to the Xinhau news agency.

“Zhang’s visit is intended to further strengthen communication and negotiation with relevant parties on a political resolution for the Syrian issue,” Liu said.

Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution last month that called for al-Assad to transfer power, saying they were opposed to military intervention.

The vetoes thwarted Arab and Western efforts to approve tough action against Syria in the Security Council. After the veto, world powers, including the United States and members of the Arab League, formed a Friends of Syria group to deal with the crisis.

World powers envision a political and peaceful solution to the crisis. But the ever-increasing death toll and opposition claims of atrocities by Syrian forces have led to calls to arm Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have indicated they are in favor of taking that step, while U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and other lawmakers have called for airstrikes to support the rebels and protect civilians.

The United States, the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey have initiated sanctions against Syria.

Japan Friday joined the list of countries that have moved to freeze Syrian assets as part of a series of sanctions aimed at putting a stranglehold on al-Assad’s ability to finance attacks.

Among the companies targeted are the Commercial Bank of Syria, Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, Syria Trading Company and General Petroleum Corp., Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

It said it was also freezing the assets of two of Syria’s leading military figures: Jamea Jamea, a branch chief of Syria’s military intelligence in Deir Ezzor; and Khayrbik Nasif Muhammad, the deputy of national security affairs.

CNN’s Amir Ahmed, Chelsea J. Carter, Salma Abdelaziz, Nada Husseini and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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Ahmed Elbatrawy