UN Syria talks stumble amid pressure on US

DAMASCUS, Aug 2, 2011 (AFP) - The UN Security Council meets again Wednesday as it struggles over how to respond to the Syria crisis Russia warns is veering toward civil war, amid growing pressure on the US to take a tougher line.

Divisions remained among the 15 nations on the wording of any condemnation of President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on protests and whether it should be a formal resolution or a less weighty statement.

European nations, which agreed to change their draft resolution on Syria following pressure from opponents, said progress had been made. But Russia said there was still not the "required balance" in the new version.

Tuesday's second day of arduous talks ended with each country sending the draft text back to their national governments ahead of new negotiations on Wednesday.

Russia's UN envoy Vitaly Churkin called the new text "detrimental" to efforts "to do everything possible to pull away from the brink of civil war where Syria is finding itself, unfortunately and tragically."

International pressure on the Security Council to agree on a stand has mounted since weekend violence in which an estimated 140 people were killed in a military offensive on the flashpoint city of Hama and other protest towns.

In Washington, Syrian dissidents urged US President Barack Obama to call on Assad to quit power.

The demands -- presented in a first meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Syria's disparate opposition -- added to US domestic pressure on the White House to take a tougher line against Assad.

Radwan Ziadeh told reporters he and other US-based dissidents told Clinton that they need "President Obama to address the Syrian people and ask President Bashar al-Assad to step down immediately."

Clinton said Washington is "working to move forward with additional targeted sanctions" and exploring broader sanctions that would "isolate the Assad regime politically and deny it revenue with which to sustain its brutality."

"The United States will continue to support the Syrian people in their efforts to begin a peaceful and orderly transition to democracy," Clinton said in a statement after the meeting.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon vented his growing anger at Assad's refusal to acknowledge international criticism, particularly after the weekend military offensive in Hama.

Highlighting his many statements on the crisis and attempts to speak to the Syrian leader, Ban told reporters Assad "must be aware that under international humanitarian law, this is accountable. I believe that he lost all sense of humanity."

Britain, France, Germany, Portugal and the United States have been trying to get a resolution passed for two months.

But Russia and China, two of the five permanent council members, have previously threatened to veto any such move.

Brazil, India and South Africa have also opposed council action, suggesting it could lead to a Libya-style international military campaign against Assad.

European governments and NATO have strongly denied that they are seeking a military intervention.

The European nations still believe that a formal UN resolution is the best way to send a strong message to Syria, but diplomats said Russia and China remain strongly against such a move, though they would accept a statement.

Syrian security forces pressed on with their deadly crackdown on Tuesday.

Three more people were killed in Hama, activists said, a day after Assad's tanks shelled the city following a bloody Sunday in which more than 100 people were killed there.

Tuesday's victims included two brothers when a rocket hit their car, and the third person was killed by a sniper, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

He also reported a "massive deployment of tanks on the road between Homs and Ruston" in central Syria where he said residents "are worried that the army is preparing to launch an operation."

On Tuesday night, there were demonstrations in Homs and numerous villages in the vicinity, as well as in the coastal cities of Latakia and Banias.

Homs, Syria's third city, is due south of Hama, where an estimated 20,000 people died when the government of Assad's father, Hafez, put down an Islamist revolt in 1982.

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