Kofi Annan March 10, 2012 (AFP)
Kofi Annan meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, March 10, 2012. Photo by AFP
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UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan met Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday to press for a political solution to Syria's year-long uprising and bloody crackdown in which thousands of people have been killed.

Syrian state television said there had been a "positive atmosphere" at the talks, but gave no details.

The diplomacy led to no immediate let-up in violence.

Syrian forces shelled the northwestern city of Idlib, wounding 20 people, while three soldiers were killed when rebels attacked armored vehicles as they tried to advance, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Regime forces have just stormed into Idlib with tanks and heavy shelling is now taking place," said an activist contacted by telephone, the sound of explosions punctuating the call.

Annan met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Cairo earlier in the day, in a mark of the pivotal part Moscow, one of Assad's few foreign friends, could play in a solution.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Lavrov had reiterated Moscow's calls for an end to violence and the start of dialogue, and emphasized its opposition to foreign interference.

International rifts have paralyzed action on Syria, with Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.

Annan also plans to meet Syrian dissidents before leaving Damascus on Sunday. He has called for a political solution, but the opposition says the time for dialogue is long gone.

"We support any initiative that aims to stop the killings but we reject it if it is going to give Bashar more time to break the revolution and keep him in power," Melham al-Droubi, a Saudi-based member of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the exiled Syrian National Council, told Reuters by telephone.

"We hope that Annan convinces Bashar to stop the killings, step down and call for a parliamentary election," he said, expressing skepticism that Assad would respond positively.

Violent day

Annan's trip to Damascus followed a violent day in which activists said Assad's forces killed at least 72 people as they bombarded parts of the rebellious city of Homs and sought to deter demonstrators and crush insurgents elsewhere.

Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly deadly struggle that began as a mainly peaceful protest movement a year ago and now appears to be sliding into civil war.

The United Nations estimates that Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.

Lavrov was due to meet Arab foreign ministers in Cairo later in the day on the sidelines of an Arab League meeting on Syria.

Qatar, which has led efforts to isolate Assad, opened the League session by saying it was time to recognize the Syrian National Council as Syria's legitimate representative.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani also urged the Syrian opposition to unite "so that they can face the tyranny of the regime".

Russia and China vetoed a UN draft resolution last month which would have backed an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step aside as part of a detailed transition plan to democracy.

Both countries say they support Annan's mission, but Russia has resisted Western and Arab demands for Assad to quit, saying no such outcome can be predetermined or imposed from outside.

"If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.

"Immediate ceasefire"

 Annan had discussed his mission on Friday in a call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, Nabil Elaraby.

"I have very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure that there must be an immediate ceasefire," Ban told reporters in New York after the call. After a ceasefire, he said, there should be "inclusive political solutions" found through dialogue.

Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any UN resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria.

Russia, an old ally of Damascus and its main arms supplier, has defended Assad against his Western and Arab critics.

A Russian diplomat said this week Assad was battling al-Qaida-backed militants, including 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if Syrian troops withdrew.

The Syrian opposition denies any al-Qaida role in the uprising, but Islamists are among rebels who have taken up arms against Assad under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

France said it would not accept any UN Security Council resolution which would assign responsibility for the violence in Syria equally between the Syrian government and the opposition.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe denied Russian suggestions the West was seeking a pretext for military action: "The option of any military intervention is not on the table," he said. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, will meet in New York on Monday on the sidelines of a special UN Security Council ministerial meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be a central topic.