Clashes rage across Syria despite UN statement

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops shelled and raided opposition areas and clashed with rebel fighters around the country Thursday despite U.N. efforts to stop the bloodshed so aid could reach suffering civilians.

Activists cited the fresh violence in dismissing a U.N. Security Council statement calling for a cease-fire to allow for dialogue between all sides on a political solution. The government of President Bashar Assad also played down the statement, saying Damascus is under no threats or ultimatums.

Mounting international condemnation of Assad’s regime and high-level diplomacy have failed to ease the year-old Syria conflict, which the U.N. says has killed more than 8,000 people. Activists reported dozens of people killed Thursday including at least 12 government soldiers.

The Syrian uprising began last March with protests calling for political reforms. Unrest spread as Assad’s forces violently tried to quash dissent, and many in the opposition took up arms to defend their towns and attack government troops.

“Civil strife of the sort we are seeing in Syria can destroy whole societies,” U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Malaysia Thursday. Ban reiterated the statement approved by the U.N. Security Council’s 15 members the day before, which sought to send a unified message on the conflict.

The statement endorsed a six-point plan by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate injured people and provide humanitarian aid and inclusive talks about a political solution.

Western countries have been pushing for Security Council action for months, but Russia and China have twice vetoed stronger resolutions that criticized the regime. Wednesday’s presidential statement becomes part of the council’s permanent record but is not legally binding.

To gain Russian and Chinese support, France watered down the text, removing clauses that could be seen as opening the door for sanctions or military action.

Meanwhile, a senior Russian lawmaker said Assad must take the first step toward settling his country’s yearlong conflict by pulling his forces out of cities and allowing humanitarian assistance. The statement signaled a marked shift in Moscow’s stance.

The comments by Mikhail Margelov, the Kremlin-connected chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russian parliament, indicated Moscow’s increasing impatience with Assad and its eagerness to raise pressure on an old ally.

“Assad must take the first step,” Margelov was quoted as saying. “He must pull out the Syrian army from big cities. It’s also necessary to deliver humanitarian assistance to the areas affected by fighting.”

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