Annan considering Assad response
Damascus - Syrian President Bashar Assad responded to UN-Arab League proposals to end the bloodshed in his country, as monitors said nearly 50 more people were killed and a pro-regime daily reported the capture of a rebel city.
The move came as rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday alleged detainees in Syria's year-old crackdown on dissent faced a "nightmarish world of systematic torture" that has set the country back decades.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, who met with Assad in Damascus over the weekend, said he had made "concrete" proposals to the Syrian leader on ways to halt the attacks and secure humanitarian access to cities where the United Nations says thousands have been killed in the past year.
"Their responses are being considered," Ahmad Fawzi, spokesperson for the envoy, said, declining to comment on the substance of the Syrian response. Annan is expected to make a statement later on Wednesday in Geneva.
Despite international pressure and growing clamour for foreign intervention, Assad's regime has pushed on with a brutal crackdown on a year-long revolt that has killed more than 8 500 people, mostly civilians, according to activists.
"The scale of torture and other ill-treatment in Syria has risen to a level not witnessed for years and is reminiscent of the dark era of the 1970s and 1980s," Amnesty International said in a report based on testimony from survivors who fled to Jordan.
Promise of co-operation
The experience "is now very similar to that of detainees under former president Hafez al-Assad - a nightmarish world of systemic torture", said Ann Harrison of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa programme.
Annan said he had a "useful meeting" with six representatives of the opposition Syrian National Council headed by Burhan Ghalioun, who he said had "promised their full co-operation".
Meanwhile, the United States dismissed Assad's announcement of elections on May 7 under a new constitution passed in February.
"Parliamentary elections for a rubber-stamp parliament in the middle of the kind of violence that we're seeing across the country - it's ridiculous," US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in Washington.
They would be the third such polls since Assad came to power in 2000, but the first under a multi-party system as authorised under the new charter.
In the latest clashes, 22 members of the security forces were killed in two separate ambushes in the southern region of Daraa and in Idlib province of northwest Syria, another hotspot of rebel operations, monitors said.
But as the regime battles to mop up resistance, Al-Watan daily said government forces had recaptured the rebel stronghold of Idlib city, following what activists said were three days of heavy shelling.
"A major operation launched three days ago in Idlib... ended in record time with army units wrapping up search operations during which dozens of armed men and fugitives were killed," the daily said.
Activists acknowledged the army had deployed in the city, but said it faced pockets of resistance by rebel fighters.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that elsewhere in Idlib province, located near the Turkish border, security forces killed at least seven civilians.
The group, whose reports cannot be verified due to government curbs on foreign media, also said eight civilians were killed in and around the central city of Homs, including a woman in Tal Kalakh, near the Lebanese border.
Another four civilians were killed in the Damascus region, said the Britain-based monitoring group, while a civilian, three members of the security forces and three deserters were killed in the northern province of Aleppo.
Against that backdrop, the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR said around 30 000 Syrians had fled to neighbouring countries and another 200 000 had been displaced inside the country, quoting Syrian Red Crescent data.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that Syria has planted landmines near its borders with both countries, along routes used by refugees fleeing the country.
Russia, accused of having shielded its ally Syria, said it will press Damascus to accept international monitors who could observe the implementation of a "simultaneous" ceasefire.
"We must not have a situation in which the government is required to leave the cities and villages while the armed groups are not made to do the same," said Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow.
Russia and China vetoed two past UN Security Council draft resolutions condemning Assad for the violence and have expressed reservations about a new US-backed version.
Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that a second "Friends of Syria" conference would take place in Istanbul on April 2, following an initial forum in Tunis last month.