- Associated Press - Friday, February 24, 2012

BEIRUT — President Bashar Assad’s forces pounded rebel-held areas in central Syria on Friday, killing at least 22 people, activists said. More than 60 nations meeting in Tunisia asked the United Nations to start planning for a civilian peacekeeping mission that would deploy after the Syrian regime halts its crackdown.

As government troops relentlessly shelled rebel-held neighborhoods in the besieged city of Homs, thousands of people in dozens of towns staged anti-regime protests under the slogan: “We will revolt for your sake, Baba Amr,” referring to the Homs neighborhood that has become the center of the Syrian revolt. Activists said at least 50 people were killed nationwide.

In Tunisia, the U.S., European and Arab nations asked the U.N. to start drafting plans for a civilian peacekeeping mission that would deploy after the Damascus regime halts the brutal crackdown.

Still unwilling to commit to military intervention to end the bloodshed, the group offered nothing other than the threat of increasing isolation and sanctions to compel compliance from Assad, who has ignored similar demands.

On Thursday, former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan was appointed the joint United Nations-Arab League envoy on the Syrian crisis.

Annan said in a statement Friday that he would try to “help bring an end to the violence and human rights abuses, and promote a peaceful solution” in Syria. He expressed hope that the Syrian government and opposition groups will cooperate with him in his efforts.

The Tunisia meeting is the latest international effort to end the crisis, which began when protesters inspired by uprisings sweeping across the Arab world took the streets in some of Syria’s impoverished provinces nearly a year ago to call for political change.

Assad’s security forces have responded with a fierce crackdown, and blame the violence on Islamic extremists and armed gangs. In recent months, the situation has grown increasingly militarized as opposition forces, boosted by army defectors, have increasingly taken up arms against the regime.

The U.N. estimated in January that 5,400 people were killed in the conflict in 2011. Hundreds more have died since. Syrian activists say the death toll is more than 7,300. Overall figures cannot be independently confirmed because Syria has prevented most media from operating inside the country.

On Thursday, U.N.-appointed investigators in Geneva said they had compiled a list of Syrian officials accused of crimes against humanity in the crackdown. The list reaches as high as Assad.

While the U.S., EU and Arab League have ratcheted up the pressure on Assad, Russia and China have opposed foreign intervention or sanctions against Syria.

Alexei Pushkov, a Russian lawmaker, said Friday that in his recent meeting with Assad the Syrian president sounded confident and showed no sign he would he step aside. Pushkov warned that arming the Syrian opposition would fuel civil war.

Assad doesn’t look like a person ready to leave, because, among other things, there is no reason for him to do that as he is being supported by broad layers of the population,” Pushkov said, according to the RIA-Novosti news agency.

Syrians demonstrating Friday condemned the positions of Russia, China and Iran — countries whose governments have stood by the Assad regime.

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