Syrian President Bashar Assad and UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan held talks in Damascus on Saturday as security forces unleashed a new offensive against dissidents in the northern region of Idlib.
Annan is trying to mediate an end to the country's deadly year-long conflict that is quickly degenerating into civil war, with reports of fresh shelling by regime forces. Thick black smoke could be seen billowing over Idlib, one of the centres of the uprising against Assad's rule, and the bombardment sent families fleeing for safety, witnesses said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the government was shelling the Idlib region after tanks moved toward the area in recent days. There was no independent confirmation, but according to an Associated Press team in the area, families were seen fleeing the violence, clutching their belongings, or taking shelter.
Syria's state-run news agency SANA reported the talks between Annan and Assad were "positive" but there were no further details on the meeting in the Syrian capital. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mouallem told Reuters the meeting was "constructive."
Annan, the former UN secretary general, will spend the weekend in Syria. Rebels have rejected his call to join the talks, but Annan will meet with members of the opposition on Sunday.
Heading into the discussions, Annan said his priority was ti get both the government and opposition forces to agree to a ceasefire. After that, he wanted to press for a political solution to the uprising, which according to the latest UN estimate, has killed more than 7,500 people.
Anti-regime activists says it's too late for a political dialogue because of the government's continuing bombardment of the central city of Homs. The regime's forces killed at least 72 people in Homs on Friday alone, according to activists.
Russia defensive about Syria stance
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke Saturday to an Arab League meeting, where he said his government is not "protecting any regimes," but merely trying to "protect international law" and "promote a peaceful resolution" to Syria's crisis.
Russia is seen as the Syrian government's top ally and Arab leaders are angry over Moscow's blocking of international pressure on Assad to step down.
Lavrov said the immediate mission now it to halt violence and enable humanitarian assistance to reach those in need in Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to meet Lavrov in New York on Monday. Clinton said she's hoping Russia will play a "constructive role" in working to end the bloodshed in Syria.
State Department spokesperson Viictoria Nulan, though, on Friday said the UN Security Council has been unable to agree on a draft resolution that would focus on the need to get humanitarian aid into Syria.
"This is now topic one, two and thee in our conversation with Moscow," she said.
Russia and China have vetoed previous resolutions on Syria and Nulan said the U.S. is "not overly optimistic" that a new text demanding access for humanitarian aid workers in beseigned Syrian districts can be approved.