The leader of a group of rebel fighters celebrates after detonating an IED in the Syrian province of Idlib
The leader of a group of rebel fighters celebrates after detonating an IED used to cut road access to their stronghold in the northern Syrian province of Idlib on March 20. The UN Security Council demanded Wednesday that Syria immediately implement a peace plan by special envoy Kofi Annan, even as government forces pounded rebel zones around Damascus and Homs. © Frederic Lafargue - AFP
The leader of a group of rebel fighters celebrates after detonating an IED in the Syrian province of Idlib
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Tim Witcher, AFP
Last updated: March 22, 2012

Russia and China join UN demand for Syria peace move

The UN Security Council on Thursday awaited Syria's response to its demand for the "immediate" implementation of a plan by special envoy Kofi Annan to rein in the government's bloody crackdown.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon said he hoped Wednesday's rare show of unity by the 15-member council -- including Russia and China -- would mark a "turning point" in the crisis, in which more than 8,000 people have been killed.

"I hope that this strong and united action by the council will mark a turning point in the international community's response to the crisis," Ban said on a visit to Kuala Lumpur Thursday.

Russia and China, which have blocked two resolutions on Syria, backed a Western-drafted statement that called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to work toward a cessation of hostilities and a democratic transition.

The council also gave a veiled warning of future international action.

But as the statement was read out on Wednesday, shells from Syrian troops rained down on the Homs district of Khaldiyeh in the latest bombardment of a bloody year-long campaign against protesters inspired by the Arab Spring.

At least 22 people have been killed in two days of bombardments in Homs, and another 23 died elsewhere in the country on Wednesday alone, activists said.

Thirty-nine bodies were found in the Rifai sector of Homs, activists said, adding that they had probably been killed at the same time as 48 women and children whose mutilated corpses were found on March 12.

There were also fierce clashes between rebels and security forces near an intelligence post in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Security Council statement, which carries less weight than a formal resolution, gives strong backing to a six-point plan that Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, put to Assad during talks in Damascus this month.

The statement called on Assad and the opposition to work with Annan "towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal."

It said Annan should regularly update the council on his efforts, adding: "In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate."

The council gave "full support" to Annan's efforts to set up a Syrian-led transition to a "democratic, plural political system."

Annan, a former UN chief, was "encouraged by the united support of the Security Council behind his efforts and urges the Syrian authorities to respond positively," his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in statement.

Annan's plan calls for Assad to pull troops and heavy weapons out of protest cities, a daily two-hour humanitarian pause to hostilities, access to all areas affected by the fighting, and a UN-supervised halt to all clashes.

The mention of a political transition, along with Russia and China's backing for the statement, was a strong signal to the increasingly isolated Assad government, diplomats said.

"This sends precisely the strong and united message to the Syrian government and all other actors in Syria that they need to respond, and respond quickly and immediately, to the six-point plan," said Britain's UN ambassador Mark Lyall Grant.

The Security Council also agreed on a press statement, proposed by Russia, that "condemned in the strongest terms" bomb attacks in Damascus and Aleppo over the weekend.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the UN statement and warned Assad to carry out the peace plan or "face increasing pressure and isolation."

The Russian and Chinese vetoes have left the Security Council in deadlock in recent months over the violence in Syria. But Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the council's latest move.

"The document does not contain any ultimatums, threats or assertions about who is guilty," said Lavrov, in remarks that were played up by Syria's state-run SANA news agency early Thursday.

Russia is Syria's main ally but it has indicated growing impatience with Damascus.

China's UN ambassador Li Baodong urged Syria to cooperate with Annan, cease its attacks and launch a political dialogue "as soon as possible."

US Senator John McCain meanwhile Wednesday told AFP that Assad's "massacres of his own people" are putting pressure on European and American leaders to take more active roles in ending the crisis.

The rebels, he said, "deserve our assistance and international assistance to fight back."

European countries still want to press for a full, binding Security Council resolution on the Syrian crisis, with French envoy Gerard Araud calling the statement "a small step by the Security Council in the right direction."

"A resolution is still on the table and we hope we will manage to obtain a Security Council resolution," he told reporters.

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