Annan urges political talks in Syria
Beirut - Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria, said on Thursday he would urge President Bashar Assad and his foes to stop fighting and seek a political solution to end a year of conflict.
The turmoil has prompted Syria's deputy oil minister to change sides in the first defection by a senior civilian official since the start of a popular uprising against Assad.
In another sign of mounting pressure on Syria, the national currency fell as low as 100 pounds to the dollar from about 47 a year ago. Dealers in Damascus said the pound plunged about 13% in the last 24 hours on fears of US military action.
"As I move to Syria, we will do whatever we can to urge and press for a cessation of hostilities and end to the killing and violence," Annan, due in Damascus on Saturday, said in Cairo.
"But of course, ultimately the solution lies in a political settlement," the former UN secretary-general said before talks with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.
"We will be urging the government and a broad spectrum of Syrian opposition to come together to work with us to find a solution that will respect the aspirations of the Syrian people."
China on the defensive
China, one of Assad's few friends abroad, said its envoy had given his Syrian hosts a similar message and had prodded them to let relief agencies into strife-hit areas - also the focus of a mission by UN aid chief Valerie Amos to Syria.
Syria on Wednesday "welcomed" China's initiative, stressing Beijing's opposition to foreign interference in its affairs.
China is trying to counter Western and Arab charges that it, along with Russia, has colluded in Assad's repression of dissent by twice vetoing UN resolutions criticising him.
The world has failed to stop an unequal struggle pitting mostly Sunni Muslim demonstrators and lightly armed rebels against the armoured might of Assad's 300 000-strong military, secret police and feared Alawite militiamen.
Despite the strains of a conflict in which the security forces have killed well over 7 500 Syrians, according to a UN estimate, and lost at least 2 000 of their own, few senior military officers and government officials have defected.
Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hussameldin, aged 58, became the highest-ranking civilian official to do so since the start of an uprising inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere.
Ready for persecution
"I join the revolution of this dignified people," he said in a YouTube video whose authenticity could not be confirmed.
He said he had been in government for 33 years but did not want to end his career "serving the crimes of this regime", adding: "I have preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family."
Burhan Ghalioun, Paris-based leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, welcomed Hussameldin's action, but said the SNC was not in contact with him. "People from the government must continue to join the opposition," he said.
Western powers have shied away from Libya-style military intervention in Syria, at the heart of a conflict-prone Middle East, but some US lawmakers have asked how many Syrians must die before President Barack Obama's administration uses force.
Defence Secretary Leon Panetta on Wednesday defended US caution, especially in the absence of international consensus on Syria, but said the Pentagon was reviewing options.
A city devastated
Amos, head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, saw desolate scenes when she visited the former rebel redoubt of Baba Amr in Homs city the same day.
"It was like a closed-down city and there were very few people around," Amanda Pitt, a Unocha spokesperson said after Amos toured Baba Amr with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.
It "looked like it was devastated from the fighting and shelling", Pitt said in New York, relaying Amos's impressions.
Amos, allowed into Syria only after Russia and China joined the rest of the UN Security Council in rebuking Damascus for keeping her out, is seeking humanitarian access to battle zones.
A UN spokesperson in Damascus said she was meeting Syrian officials and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent on Thursday, but would make no more field trips before leaving later in the day.
An ICRC convoy has been unable to enter Baba Amr since it reached Homs on Friday, a day after rebels left a district that had endured sustained bombardment and sniping for 26 days.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said aid delays were unacceptable and urged Syria to respect a pledge last November to withdraw troops, free prisoners and allow peaceful protests.
"The regime's refusal to allow humanitarian workers to help feed the hungry, tend to the injured, bury the dead, marks a new low," she said, adding that she planned to meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Monday at the United Nations.
Russia's UN envoy accused Libya's new rulers of training and arming Syrian rebels. "This is completely unacceptable ... This activity is undermining stability in the Middle East," said Vitaly Churkin.
Syrian activist groups said the army, after its onslaught on Homs, is preparing to attack rebel bastions in Idlib province, a mountainous area in the northwest which borders Turkey.
A pro-Syrian Lebanese official said last month that Assad aimed to crush insurgents in Homs and move on to Idlib.