Annan leaves Syria with no deal as army mounts new assault on rebels

Kofi Annan has ended his trip to Syria without a deal as regime forces mount a new assault on rebel strongholds in the north.

The former UN chief is the highest-ranking international official to visit Syria to try to broker a peace agreement and said he had presented President Bashar Assad with concrete proposals “which will have a real impact on the ground”.

“Once it’s agreed, it will help launch the process and help end the crisis on the ground,” Mr Annan said at the end of his two-day visit.

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The international envoy, who also met with Syrian opposition leaders and businessmen in Damascus, said he was optimistic following two sets of talks with Mr Assad, but acknowledged that resolving the crisis would be tough.

“It’s going to be difficult but we have to have hope,” he said.

The former UN chief called for reforms that would create “a solid foundation for a democratic Syria,” but added: “You have to start by stopping the killing and the misery and the abuse that is going on today and then give time for a political settlement.”

The ongoing bloodshed cast a pall over the UN efforts to end the country’s year-long conflict, with both the regime and the opposition refusing talks with the other.

In his discussions with Mr Assad on Saturday, Mr Annan made several proposals to end the political crisis and start a political dialogue. He was rebuffed by the president, who rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already faltering international efforts for talks to end the conflict.

Mr Assad told Mr 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 UN estimates has killed more than 7,500 people. Mr Annan left Syria yesterday, headed for Qatar, a UN spokesman said.

Syrian forces are keeping up an offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of the country and have shelled neighbourhoods in the restive central city of Homs, activists said.

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

Troops launched a long- anticipated assault on Saturday to crush the opposition in Idlib province, 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 the Assad regime.

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

A mother and her son were killed in the town of Ariha.