UN envoy arrives in Syria amid signs of more cracks in Assad regime

Kofi Annan to meet Bashar al-Assad over latest initiative to halt bloodshed as more defectors follow lead of deputy oil minister

Kofi Annan has arrived in Damascus to launch the latest initiative to stop the bloodshed in Syria, but opposition leaders said that any deal with President Bashar al-Assad was unthinkable while civilians were being killed by government forces.

Opposition activists said that at least 26 people were killed across Syria on Friday, but there were also signs of more cracks in the Assad regime. A Turkish official said that two Syrian generals, a colonel and two sergeants had defected to Turkey on Thursday, soon after Syria's deputy oil minister, Abdo Hussameldin, and a brigadier general announced their desertion of the regime on YouTube videos.

Western diplomats speculated on Friday that the public nature of their renunciation of the Assad government had encouraged other high-ranking officers to follow their example.

The new defectors were among 234 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey since Thursday. The defections were welcomed by EU foreign ministers meeting in Copenhagen, where they were portrayed as a sign that sanctions against the Damascus government were working.

"It is very good news that clearly high-ranking state and military officials are increasingly turning away from the Assad regime," said Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said, speaking in Berlin before his departure for the Danish capital. "The process of disintegration of the Assad regime has begun; the signs of erosion will continue. No country can be led in the long term with cruelty and repression."

Annan, a former UN secretary general who has been appointed joint UN-Arab League envoy, is due to meet Assad during his visit to Damascus. He said he was taking "realistic" proposals to halt the killing, but did not go into details.

Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, said that any talks with Assad were pointless as long as the regime continued to massacre its own people. "It feels like we are watching the same movie being repeated over and over again," Ghalioun told the Associated Press in an interview from Paris. "My fear is that, like other international envoys before him, the aim is to waste a month or two of pointless mediation efforts."

The UN humanitarian co-ordinator, Lady Amos, said on Friday that Syria had agreed to a joint mission to assess the country's emergency relief needs, but added that the regime had to do more.

"While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organisations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies," Amos told journalists in Ankara after touring Syrian refugee camps along the Turkish border.

In Beijing, China announced on Friday that it is sending its own envoy to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France to explain its proposal for a Syrian ceasefire. The foreign ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, said that the assistant foreign affairs minister, Zhang Ming, would meet Arab League leaders during the seven-day trip, which begins on Sunday.


Julian Borger and agencies

The GuardianTramp

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