UN aid chief in Syria
Damascus - The UN humanitarian chief started a mission to Syria on Wednesday to urge the regime to allow aid into battered protest cities, putting the focus on civilians in a conflict which has cost thousands of lives.
Valerie Amos flew in for a two-day visit, after an international outcry over President Bashar Assad's previous refusal to let her in, and is to be followed by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan on Saturday.
Syria is ready to co-operate with the visiting UN humanitarian delegation, Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said in talks with Amos.
The state SANA news agency said Muallem "underlined Syria's commitment to co-operate with the delegation within the framework of the respect, sovereignty and independence of Syria".
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been negotiating with authorities since last week to be allowed to deliver aid and evacuate the wounded from the battered Baba Amr rebel district of Homs city in central Syria.
Syrian authorities have said access was being denied because of safety concerns over mines and unexploded bombs, but the opposition charges that the delay is aimed at allowing time for the regime's "crimes" to be covered up.
Also on Wednesday, a Chinese envoy sent to discuss ways to end the bloodshed in Syria was to discuss a six-point peace plan with Muallem and opposition figures.
Envoy Li Huaxin, quoted in Al-Watan newspaper, said he already met with Deputy Foreign Minister Ahmad Arnus to discuss China's "six-point vision" on the year-long bloodshed in Syria.
The Chinese initiative calls for an immediate end to the violence and for dialogue between Assad's regime and the opposition.
Beijing's proposal rejects foreign interference or "external action for regime change" in Syria but supports the role of the UN Security Council "in strict accordance with the purposes and principles of the UN charter".
Li was also expected to meet representatives of opposition groups, according to Al-Watan.
Russia, which like China has been criticised for blocking Security Council action on the crisis, urged its ally Damascus and the rebels to "immediately" halt violence and assist the arrival of Amos's mission.
The Russian foreign ministry said it received Syria's ambassador to Moscow at his own request and made clear that "violence must end immediately, no matter where it comes from".
Russia also "underscored the critical need to solve acute humanitarian problems in Syria", the ministry said.
On the ground, tanks and troop carriers were headed for the embattled province of Idlib in northwest Syria on Wednesday, said the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main opposition alliance.
It also said "several people were killed" in bombardment of Maaret al-Numan, another town in Idlib province.
The SNC called on the international community, the Arab League and international NGOs to "act urgently and at all levels, to avoid a repeat of the massacre at Baba Amr, where hundreds of martyrs fell".
8 500 dead
Baba Amr, a rebel district in the flashpoint city of Homs, fell last Thursday after almost a month of shelling by Syrian forces that cost hundreds of lives and which the SNC said reduced much of the city to rubble.
The Syrian army has intensified its attacks on insurgency strongholds, particularly in Idlib, since it retook Baba Amr.
On Tuesday, at least 16 people were killed as Syrian regime forces launched a major assault on Herak, a town in the southern province of Daraa, a monitoring group said.
"Large military forces, including tanks and armoured troop carriers, launched an assault on Herak," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights added.
Syrian Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said on Wednesday the overall death toll since last March has now reached almost 8 500, with civilians accounting for three-quarters of those killed and the rest made up of soldiers, security forces and rebels.
US President Barack Obama on Tuesday cautioned against unilateral military action, after top Republican Senator John McCain called for US air strikes on Syrian forces to protect population centres and create safe havens.
"What's happening in Syria is heartbreaking, and outrageous, and what you've seen is the international community mobilise against the Assad regime," Obama told a White House press conference.
"On the other hand, for us to take military action, unilaterally, as some have suggested, or to think that somehow there's some simple solution, I think is a mistake."
In contrast to Qatar and Saudi Arabia which have supported the arming of the rebels, Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr warned that such intervention would lead to a civil war, his ministry said on Wednesday.
Arming the ill-equipped rebels, mainly Syrian army defectors, would "lead to an escalation in the military conflict and spark a civil war in Syria", Amr said.
Diplomats in New York, meanwhile, said there would be no moves at the United Nations on the crisis until Annan and Amos had wound up their separate missions to Syria this week.