Annan 'optimistic' about Syria, but no deal yet

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BEIRUT (AP) — U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan says he is optimistic following two sets of talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, but there is still no deal in place to end the bloodshed.

Annan briefed reporters in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Sunday after his meetings with Assad. He said it's important that the crisis not degenerate further.

During Annan's two-day visit, Syrian forces kept up an offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of the country.

The bloodshed has cast a pall over U.N. efforts to end the country's yearlong conflict, with both the regime and the opposition refusing talks with the other.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian forces kept up an offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of the country and shelled neighborhoods in the restive central city of Homs Sunday, activists said, as U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan was to meet for a second time with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Military units loyal to Assad appear to have been freed up after finally crushing lightly armed rebels in the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr last week, and are on the attack in Idlib province, across the border from key opposition supply bases in Turkey.

The bloodshed is casting a pall over U.N. efforts to end the country's yearlong conflict, with both the regime and the opposition refusing talks with the other.

In his talks with Assad on Saturday, Annan made several proposals towards ending the country's yearlong political crisis and starting a political dialogue. He was rebuffed by the president who rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict.

Assad told Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as "terrorist groups" threaten the country.

The opposition's political leadership has also rejected dialogue, saying talk is impossible after a crackdown that the U.N. estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. That makes it likely that the conflict will continue to edge toward civil war.

A U.N. official in Damascus said Annan is scheduled to meet with the country's grand mufti, who is a senior cleric, and again with Assad Sunday before heading to the Gulf state of Qatar. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Meanwhile, activists said fresh violence erupted in central Syria's Homs region and again in the northern Idlib province, where troops launched Saturday a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.

Syrian forces had been building up for days around Idlib, the capital of a hilly, agricultural province along the Syria-Turkey border that has been a hotbed of protests against Assad's regime.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground in Syria, said a civilian was killed Sunday in the village of al-Janoudieh across from the border with Turkey where heavy clashes were taking place between troops and army defectors.

Three soldiers were also killed, the group said.

An AP photographer touring Turkish villages across the border from Idlib reported hearing constant artillery pounding. Villagers said the artillery fire begins at just before dawn and that refugees were trickling in across the border during lulls.

Troops had stormed the village in the northern Jisr al-Shughour area and began a campaign of raids and arrests, activists said.

In Homs, several activist reported intense shelling of the Karm el-Zeytoun district with mortars and rocket propelled grenades and said several people were killed and wounded.

"There is very heavy destruction. Cars are burning and smoke is rising from the area," said Homs-based activist Abu Bakr Saleh.

"They are trying to punish all districts of Homs where anti-government protests still take place," he said.

Many fear the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime's campaign against the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for weeks before capturing it on March 1.

Activists say hundreds were killed, and a U.N. official who visited the area this week said she was "horrified" by the destruction in the district, now virtually deserted.


AP writer Albert Aji contributed from Damascus, Syria.