'Friends of Syria' ready ultimatum for Assad

Associated Press
This Wednesday Feb. 15, 2012 satellite image shows a pipeline fire in Homs, Syria. The pipeline, which runs through the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr, in Homs, had been shelled by regime troops for the previous 12 days, according to two activist groups, the Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The state news agency, SANA, blamed "armed terrorists" for the pipeline attack last week. It said the pipeline feeds the tankers in the Damascus suburb of Adra, which contribute in supplying gasoline to the capital and southern regions. (AP Photo/DigitalGlobe) MANDATORY CREDIT
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TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — The United States, Europe and Arab countries were set Friday to back a proposal for Syria's president to step aside and allow in humanitarian assistance to end a brutal crackdown against opponents.

American, European and Arab officials are meeting in a major international "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia to work out the details for their 72-hour ultimatum end the violence and allow in aid, which will be backed by as yet unspecified punishments.

A draft of the conference's final declaration also states that the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group of opposition organizations, will be recognized as "a legitimate representative of Syrians" and promised additional "practical" support for opposition groups.

"This conference will help the Syrian people, the revolutionaries, I think, they will give us the power as a national council, a political umbrella for the revolution inside Syria and I think they will push the international community to take good steps against the Syrian regime," Haithem al-Maleh, executive director of the Syrian National Council told journalists ahead of the conference.

Former United Nations chief, Kofi Annan, was also named to be a joint U.N.-Arab League envoy to deal with the crisis.

International action over Syria has so far been hindered by Russia and China's continued opposition to any foreign intervention in Syria.

Both nations say they support a "speedy end" to the violence, but they have vetoed two U.N. Security Council resolutions backing Arab League plans aimed at ending the conflict and condemning Assad's crackdown.

Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said Friday after meeting Assad in Damascus that the Syrian president sounded confident and demonstrated no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.

In a statement Friday, the Russian Foreign Ministry also called for "an immediate mutual cease-fire" to allow the wounded to be evacuated from Homs, and urged both the government and the opposition to take urgent steps to ease the humanitarian crisis. The ministry also voiced support for Annan's mission.

Western intelligence officials, however, say they believe Russia's patience may be running out with Syrian regime.

Tunisia's official spokesman Adnan Mancer said Thursday that Russia and China must "look to the future of their relations with the Arab world and consider what happens after Assad."

Diplomats said the meeting in Tunis on Friday would demand Assad's compliance. They said that failure on his part would result in tougher sanctions and predicted that his opponents would grow stronger unless he accedes and accepts a political transition that would see him leave power.

If Assad doesn't comply, "we think that the pressure will continue to build. ... I think that the strategy followed by the Syrians and their allies is one that can't stand the test of legitimacy ... for any length of time," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in London after meeting about a dozen of her foreign minister colleagues to prepare for the Tunis event.

Clinton and others ruled out any overt, direct lethal military aid to Assad's opponents.

A draft of the Tunis conference's final document obtained by The Associated Press backs an Arab League plan that calls for Assad to turn over his authority to a deputy, halt all violence and prepare for internationally supervised elections.

The political transition would be akin to what happened in Yemen, where outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh quit in favor of his deputy after widespread protests.

The draft, which is still subject to change, also demands "that humanitarian agencies be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence."

More than 5,400 people have been killed in the conflict, according to a U.N. estimate in January. Hundreds more have died since and Syrian activists place the death toll at more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria strictly limits independent reporting.

Homs, Syria's third-largest city, has been under a fierce government attack for nearly three weeks. Government troops continued to shell rebel-held areas in central Syria on Friday, killing at least four people, activists said

To spur negotiations, the Arab League and United Nations on Thursday jointly appointed Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, to be their special envoy to Syria with a mandate to bring an end to the violence and promote a peaceful political solution.

Annan will work on bringing an end to "all violence and human rights violations, and promoting a peaceful solution to the Syrian crisis," the two bodies said in a statement.

American officials accompanying Clinton to the Friends of Syria meeting said the group would make clear to Assad that his regime has a moral obligation to end the shelling of civilian areas and allow assistance into the country. The burden is on Assad to respond to the demands of the international community, they said.

"The efforts that we are undertaking with the international community ... are intended to demonstrate the Assad regime's deepening isolation," Clinton said. "Our immediate focus is on increasing the pressure. We have got to find ways of getting food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance into affected areas. This takes time and it takes a lot of diplomacy."

Clinton met Thursday in London with Juppe and foreign ministers and senior officials from about a dozen countries, including Britain, Germany, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. More than 70 nations and international organizations are expected at the Tunis meeting.

Several nations have proposed creating protected corridors through which humanitarian relief could flow but it was not clear whether a consensus could be reached on the matter, as such a step almost certainly would require a military component.

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Lee reported from London. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

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