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U.N. chief urges Syria’s Assad to stem continuing violence

By Alice Fordham,

BEIRUT — Activists reported continuing violence in Syria on Wednesday, with heavy fighting in the central province of Hama, as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon urged the government to implement proposed measures to end the conflict.

Clashes broke out as Syrian troops tried to subdue a rebel-held town near the city of Hama, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Four civilians, five soldiers and five armed rebels were killed, Abdulrahman said, as army tanks directed artillery fire at the town of Qalaat al-Madiq.

The Local Coordination Committees network also reported clashes during the day near the cities of Daraa, in the south, and Homs, in the north, that killed 20 people; Abdulrahman put the toll at 17, with seven civilians, five armed rebels and five soldiers killed. The numbers could not be independently verified because Syria restricts access for journalists.

On Tuesday, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, said President Bashar al-Assad’s government had agreed to a six-point plan to halt the fighting between protesters and security forces, which have been facing down an uprising for more than a year.

The plan calls for Syria’s military to withdraw from cities and cease operations that, according to estimates of the United Nations, have killed about 9,000 people. Ban, speaking in Kuwait before traveling to Baghdad for an Arab League summit, said: “I urge President al-Assad to put commitments into immediate effect. There is no time to waste.”

The U.N. human rights chief, Navi Pillay, said in an interview with the BBC this week that Syrian forces have been targeting children for arrest and torture.

“They’ve gone for the children — for whatever purposes — in large numbers. Hundreds detained and tortured,” she said. “Children shot in the knees, held together with adults in really inhumane conditions, denied medical treatment for their injuries, either held as hostages or as sources of information.”

Pillay said she thinks there is enough evidence for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court.

Russia, which has backed Assad despite international condemnation of his regime’s crackdown on dissent, urged the Syrian opposition in a Foreign Ministry statement on Twitter to endorse Annan’s plan and engage in negotiations.

Also Wednesday, Arab League foreign ministers meeting in Baghdad agreed to endorse the plan but made it clear that no new measures on Syria would emerge from the summit to be held Thursday.

Rather, the league appears to be retreating from its tough stance against Assad earlier in the year and its call for him to cede authority to his vice president. That proposal failed to win international support as Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing it, and Arab states are themselves divided over how to deal with the crisis.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said at a news conference that although the summit would urge Syria to implement Annan’s plan, it would not suggest ways of doing so. “We don’t have any new initiative with respect to Syria,” he said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said officials would reject any Arab League initiative developed while Syria’s membership in the body is suspended, state media reported Wednesday. Syria was suspended last year amid its crackdown.

Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the prominent Syrian National Council opposition group, said Wednesday that she welcomed Assad’s acceptance of Annan’s plan but that until the first three points of the plan are implemented, no political process will be possible. Those points call for the appointment of a political interlocutor, an end to fighting and access for aid workers.

Kodmani, who had been attending a meeting of Syrian opposition groups in Istanbul intended to unify the divided factions, said some progress had been made. Most opposition groups, including Syria’s influential Muslim Brotherhood, had signed on to a plan to build a democratic Syria and agreed that the council represented them, she said.

But minority groups remained reluctant to back the plan, with the leaders of Syria’s substantial and downtrodden Kurdish minority calling for more explicit recognition of their rights, Kodmani said.

Correspondent Liz Sly in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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