'Friends of Syria' conference starts in Istanbul

AFP , Sunday 1 Apr 2012

Dozens of representatives from Western and Arab countries gather in Istanbul for talks aimed at turning up the pressure on Syria's regime to end a deadly crackdown on opponents

Bodies of Syrian people killed by the Al-Assad regime troops (Photo: AFP)

Dozens of representatives from Western and Arab countries were gathering for talks Sunday in Istanbul aimed at pressuring Damascus to implement a peace plan by Kofi Annan to stop bloodshed in Syria.

The second conference of the "Friends of Syria" was preceded by an international chorus of calls for President Bashar al-Assad to immediately set in motion the plan which he accepted Tuesday, without halting shelling of opposition strongholds.

"We expect him to implement this plan immediately," a spokesman for Annan, the author of the six-point peace plan, said Friday.

The regime declared on Saturday it had defeated those seeking to bring it down while reiterating support for Annan's plan.

But troops reportedly continued shelling rebels in the city of Homs and foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said they would only draw back from urban areas once the security situation is stable.

On Sunday, more than 70 representatives will seek new ways to ensure that Assad delivers on his promises, while they discuss with the main opposition Syrian National Council at the conference how to provide non-lethal aid to rebels.

Turkey, the conference host that has given refuge to more than 18,000 Syrians on its soil, will seek to increase pressure on Damascus to end the bloody repression that has claimed 9-10,000 lives, said a Turkish official on condition of anonymity.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is attending the talks, warned Saturday that Assad risked backing out of his commitment to the peace plan.

Before fluing in from Riyadh, she reaffirmed that Washington is looking at sending non-lethal support like communications gear and medical aid to an increasingly armed opposition.

However, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are calling for arming the anti-Assad movement.

Clinton said the US focus in Istanbul will be to intensify the array of US, European, Canadian, Arab and Turkish sanctions on Syria, and to look at sending in more humanitarian aid, despite Syrian efforts to block it.

She also called for strengthening the unity of the opposition -- including the leading Syrian National Council -- and promoting their "democratic vision" as a viable alternative to the Assad regime.

Annan's plan calls for an end to the violence, a daily two-hour humanitarian ceasefire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria, as well as an inclusive Syrian-led political process, a right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.

The UN-Arab League envoy will however be absent from the conference, the second since a meeting in Tunis in February, as will his successor as UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

Russia and China, Damascus's two remaining allies, have also opted out of the Istanbul conference while Arab League rotating president Iraq said Saturday that it might also skip the meeting.

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