- Associated Press - Sunday, February 5, 2012

SOFIA, BULGARIA Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Sunday for “friends of democratic Syria” to unite and rally against President Bashar Assad’s regime, previewing the possible formation of a formal group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Speaking in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia a day after Russia and China blocked U.N. Security Council action on Syria, Mr. Clinton said the international community has a duty to halt ongoing bloodshed and promote a political transition that would see Mr. Assad step down.

She said the “friends of Syria” should work together to promote those ends.

Mrs. Clinton was bluntly critical of Saturday’s vetoes by Russia and China that blocked U.N. action against the continuing violence in Syria.

“What happened yesterday at the United Nations was a travesty,” she said.

“Faced with a neutered Security Council, we have to redouble our efforts outside of the United Nations with those allies and partners who support the Syrian people’s right to have a better future,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters after meeting top Bulgarian officials.

Such a group could be similar, but not identical, to the Contact Group on Libya, which oversaw international help for opponents of the late deposed Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

However, in the case of Libya, the group also coordinated NATO military operations to protect Libyan civilians, something that is not envisioned in Syria.

Mrs. Clinton warned that a failure to act would increase the chances for “a brutal civil war” as many Syrians under attack from their government moved to defend themselves.

U.S. officials said a friends group would work to further squeeze the Assad regime by enhancing sanctions against it, bringing disparate Syrian opposition groups inside and outside the country together, providing humanitarian relief for embattled communities and working to prevent an escalation of violence by monitoring arms sales.

“We will work to expose those who are still funding the regime and sending it weapons to be used against defenseless Syrians, including women and children,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We will work with the friends of a democratic Syria around the world to support the opposition’s peaceful political plans for change.”

Mrs. Clinton’s comments came as Syria’s opposition appealed for international backing along the lines she suggested following the double veto at the U.N. Security Council that outraged the U.S., its European allies and Arab leaders and intensified fears that Mr. Assad would unleash even greater violence to crush protesters.

Meanwhile, a Syrian state-run newspaper vowed Sunday that Damascus will press its crackdown on the uprising until stability is restored.

Early Saturday, regime forces bombarded the restive central city of Homs in what activists said was the deadliest incident of the uprising. They reported more than 200 killed, but the regime denied any bombardment.

There was no way to independently confirm the toll.