Russian FM due in Syria amid escalating violence

ZEINA KARAM Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Russia's foreign minister was due in Damascus on Tuesday for talks with embattled President Bashar Assad amid escalating violence, a day after the U.S. closed its embassy and Britain recalled its ambassador from Syria.

Hundreds of people, some waving Russian flags, gathered in the capital to welcome and "salute" Sergei Lavrov for his country's support of Syria, the state-run Syrian TV reported.

Syrian allies Russia and China vetoed on Saturday a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the United Nations condemning the Assad regime's crackdown on dissent and calling on him to transfer some of his powers to his deputy. The Syrian government had earlier rejected the Arab plan as intervention in Syria's internal affairs.

Bolstered by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, government troops stepped up an assault on the flashpoint city of Homs, where Syrian government forces, using tanks and machine guns, pressed ahead Tuesday in a push to recover rebel-held districts.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March, the U.N. said early last month. Hundreds more are believe to have been killed since then, but the U.N. says the chaos in the country has made it impossible to cross-check the figures.

Syria has blocked access to trouble spots and prevented independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side. The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime.

On Monday, troops shelled a makeshift medical clinic and residential areas, killing nearly 70 people, activists said. More than a dozen others were reported killed elsewhere.

The escalating violence prompted the United States to close its embassy in Syria while Britain recalled its ambassador to Damascus in a clear message that Western powers see no point in engaging with Assad and now will seek to bolster Syria's opposition.

"This is a doomed regime as well as a murdering regime," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told lawmakers Monday. "There is no way it can recover its credibility internationally."

President Barack Obama said the Syrian leader's departure is only a matter of time.

"We have been relentless in sending a message that it is time for Assad to go," Obama said during an interview with NBC. "This is not going to be a matter of if, it's going to be a matter of when."

Even as the U.S. steps up pressure on Assad to halt the violence and relinquish power, Obama said a negotiated solution was possible, without recourse to outside military intervention.

Later, however, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was taking "no options off the table."

U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford and 17 other U.S. officials left Syria on Monday, arriving in Amman, Jordan, several hours later. Ford was to travel on to Paris to spend time with his wife, the State Department said.