Assad calls Syria vote, takes rebel city
Damascus - Syrian President Bashar Assad on Tuesday set an election for May 7, even as monitors said fresh violence cost more than 40 lives and a pro-government daily reported the capture of a rebel city.
Assad's announcement of parliamentary elections came as UN-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan said he was still expecting a response from the Syrian leader to "concrete proposals" to halt one year of bloodshed.
State news agency Sana said Assad, who has proposed a programme of reforms in the face of an unprecedented revolt, has set May 7 as the date for elections under a new constitution passed in February.
The elections 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 law.
Washington immediately dismissed the proposed vote.
"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.
Annan, speaking to reporters in Ankara after meeting with Syria's opposition, said he was "expecting to hear from Syrian authorities today since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider".
But there was no response announced in Damascus by early evening.
Annan was referring to weekend meetings in Damascus with Assad, after which he had expressed optimism the crisis could be resolved peacefully but warned the situation in Syria was at a "dangerous" level.
The former UN chief also said he had a "useful meeting" with six representatives of the opposition Syrian National Council headed by Burhan Ghalioun, whom he said had "promised their full co-operation."
In the latest clashes, 22 members of the security forces were killed in two separate ambushes in the southern region of Dara'a 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 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 were facing 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 eight civilians on Tuesday.
The group, whose reports can not 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 and a member of the security forces 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 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.
"The objective is for both sides to understand that there is an independent observer watching how they meet demands," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow.
"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," he said.
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.
Also on the diplomatic front, 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 on February 24.
Despite international pressure and growing clamour for foreign intervention, Assad's regime has pushed on with its brutal crackdown on a year-long revolt that has killed more than 8 500 people, mostly civilians, according to activists.
On Monday, the opposition denounced the "massacre" of 47 women and children in the city of Homs. The regime blamed the killings on "armed terrorist gangs."
The grisly murders in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, came less than two weeks after regime troops stormed its rebel Baba Amr neighbourhood, following a month-long bombardment in which activists say 700 people were killed.
Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi called for an international probe into "crimes" committed against civilians in Syria.
"There must be an international, independent probe to reveal the truth about what is happening and identify those responsible for these crimes and refer them to justice," he said.