Battles in Syria as allies Russia, China meet

Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

DAMASCUS - The Syrian army went on a fresh offensive against rebels on Tuesday as Russia and China, which have stalled Western-led UN moves against Damascus, began talks expected to focus on the Syria crisis.

After three days of bombardment, troops and pro-regime militiamen backed by tanks and armoured cars seized control of Kfar Zita in the central province of Hama, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that rebel fighters had withdrawn.

It said four civilians were killed overnight in a "huge military operation" in the Kfar Oweid area of Idlib, a province bordering Turkey that is a stronghold of rebel forces.

The foes also clashed in several other areas of the province in northwest Syria, said the Britain-based Observatory.

The monitoring group said districts of the flashpoint city of Homs, also north of Damascus, came under artillery fire "as part of a campaign by regular forces to destroy them completely."

In Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, two rebel fighters were killed in an attack by regime troops on the town of Al-Hafa, the group said.

The latest clashes came after the military suffered major losses to the rebel Free Syrian Army over the weekend which announced it was resuming "defensive operations" because of the failure of a UN-backed April 12 ceasefire.

According to the Observatory, at least 92 soldiers have been killed since Sunday.

On Monday, it said, government forces attacked rebel strongholds in Idlib province and Deir Ezzor in the northeast as violence across the country claimed at least 35 lives.

On the diplomatic front, China was hosting summit talks with Russia, which like Beijing has blocked UN Security Council condemnation of the Syrian regime for its bloody crackdown on dissent that has cost thousands of lives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who came to China just weeks after cancelling a visit to the United States, began talks with President Hu Jintao Tuesday ahead of a meeting with Hu's likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.

China's UN envoy said on Monday that efforts to end the 15 months of bloodshed in Syria were at a "crossroads," and government and opposition forces must halt violence.

In talks in Saint Petersburg on Monday with Putin, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the European Union and Russia "might have some divergent assessments" of the situation in Syria.

But he said they agreed that implementing the troubled peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was the only way forward in a situation that risks developing into full-scale civil war.

China's ambassador Li Baodong said last month's Houla massacre of more than 100 people, including many children, had dealt a huge blow to Annan's mediation mission, as Beijing took over the Security Council for June.

In Saint Petersburg, Van Rompuy said the EU and Russia fully agreed that the Annan plan provided the "best opportunity to break the cycle of violence in Syria, avoiding a civil war and finding a peaceful, lasting solution".

"We need to combine our efforts in order for this to happen and to find common messages on which we agree," he said.

International frustration with the Kremlin's stance on Syria is growing again after Russia refused to squarely blame Assad for the May 25 massacre in Houla, instead saying rebels shared some of the responsibility.

Annan is to discuss the Syria crisis at the UN Security Council on Thursday and in talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday.

He has demanded a "serious review" of deadlocked efforts to end the bloodshed and is stepping up pressure on international powers to put some muscle into their support for his peace plan or find a Plan B, diplomats said in New York.

Chinese UN envoy Li told reporters, without signalling any easing in China's opposition to sanctions against Assad, "The Syrian issue now is at a very critical moment. The political process to solve the Syrian crisis is at a crossroads."

The Houla massacre "has caused collateral damage to Annan's mediation effort. And also it presents a huge challenge to the international community," Li said.

As many as 2,400 of the more than 13,500 people killed since the uprising began have died since a UN-backed ceasefire was supposed to come into force last month, according to the Observatory.

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