Assad proposes steps to end violence

Overall death toll now put at more than 17,000

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has suggested ending Syria's conflict on a step-by-step basis, starting with districts that have suffered the worst violence, international mediator Kofi Annan said on Tuesday.  The former U.N. secretary general met Assad in Damascus on Monday, launching a round of shuttle diplomacy to try to revive his moribund plan for ending Syria's 16-month-old uprising in which rebels are fighting to topple the authoritarian leader.

 Speaking to reporters after talks in Iran, Annan said Assad had proposed "building an approach from the ground up in some of the districts where we have extreme violence - to try and contain the violence in those districts and, step by step, build up and end the violence across the country".

Annan, who represents the United Nations and the Arab League, said he needed to discuss the proposal with the Syrian opposition and could not give further details.

It was not clear how or where he planned to do this with opposition leaders, who say there can be no peaceful transition unless Assad, who tried to crush popular protests by armed force from the moment they began, relinquishes power first.

After talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Annan flew to Baghdad. He will present the conclusions of his tour to the U.N. Security Council in New York on Wednesday, according to the French Foreign Ministry.

Syria's major ally Russia proposed what sounded like an alternative to the Western-backed, anti-Assad "Friends of Syria" forum, with an offer to visiting Syrian opposition groups to host regular meetings of Annan's own "action group" of states, which is more balanced between pro- and anti-Assad influences.

"We would welcome the organisation of a regular session of an 'action group' in Moscow ... In any case we see the relevance in carrying out such an event," Interfax news agency quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov as saying.

The Syrian National Council (SNC) - the main opposition umbrella group in exile - will hold talks on Wednesday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Its delegation of 10 members is led by the group's chief, Abdelbasset Sida.

 BIG POWER DIFFERENCES

Major powers agreed at a meeting with Annan on June 30 that a transitional government should be set up in Syria, but remain at odds over what part Assad might play in the process.

Russia, while having distanced itself somewhat from Assad by saying it would no longer deliver arms to Damascus while fighting continues, says no transition plan can pre-suppose that Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 42 years, will step down.

But Western powers and allied Gulf Arab states say he must go, and the Syrian opposition say that is their basic condition.

The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 17,129 people have been killed in Syria's increasingly sectarian revolt pitting rebels from the Sunni Muslim majority against Assad's Alawites, related to Shi'ite Islam.

It said 11,897 civilians or armed insurgents had been killed by Assad's forces, but that it could not determine how many fell into each category. It also estimated that 884 defectors had been killed.

The Observatory put the death toll among Syrian security forces loyal to Assad at 4,348.

The Syrian government has not given a death toll for security forces for several months but Assad said last week that most of the victims of the uprising were government supporters.

The Observatory said some 100 people were killed on Monday, most of them insurgents. In the northerly Aleppo and Idlib provinces, which border Turkey, several towns were shelled.

In Latakia province, further west but also close to the Turkish border, Syrian forces fired on Jabal al-Akrad in an attempt to regain control from rebels infiltrating from Turkey.

In Deir al-Zor, on the eastern road to Iraq, a volunteer medic was killed and at least four soldiers died in fighting.

Clashes were also reported overnight in Deraa, along the border with Jordan, and gunfire and explosions rocked the cities of Homs and Hama and the central town of Rastan.

The SNC said it was time for the United Nations to declare a humanitarian emergency in Syria, where the U.N. says one and a half million out of a population of 22 million have been affected by the
conflict.

LEBANON THREATENED

Three people were killed when Syrian mortars hit villages in neighbouring north Lebanon. Locals said they were under fire for five hours overnight, after sporadic shelling in the area lasting several
days.

It was the second such fatal attack in three days. Three people were killed inside Lebanon by mortar fire at the weekend.

Lebanon has long been a political battleground for bigger regional powers. Damascus had a major military presence in its smaller coastal neighbour for 29 years

Assad withdrew his troops in 2005, but Damascus is still the main external player in the delicately balanced sectarian politics of a country torn apart by a 1975-90 civil war.

The border has become more volatile in the past month, raising fears that Lebanon could be drawn into Syria's conflict. It is mirrored in Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, where armed Sunnis and Alawites have fought twice this year.

There is concern that a proxy conflict is being fought out,   with Saudi Arabia and Qatar pouring funds into Tripoli through Salafi Islamist groups - increasingly powerful in Lebanon -  against Lebanon's influential Shi'ite Hezbollah and Amal factions, which back Assad's Alawite-led government.

The government of Prime Minister Najib Mikati has distanced itself from the Syria crisis, calling it an internal matter. But Mikati's allies and foes have already taken sides. Sunni Muslims feel their political power has already by overtaken by  Hezbollah, the powerful and heavily armed Shi'ite movement.

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