- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 7, 2012

BEIRUT — Syrian forces renewed their assault on the flashpoint city of Homs Tuesday as Russia’s foreign minister stressed the need for reform and dialogue during talks in Damascus with President Bashar Assad about the country’s escalating violence.

Sergey Lavrov’s visit comes days after Syrian allies Russia and China vetoed a Western- and Arab-backed resolution at the United Nations that would have condemned the Assad regime’s crackdown on dissent and calling on him to transfer some of his powers to his deputy. The Syrian government had rejected the Arab plan as intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.

Thousands of Syrians cheered Russia’s foreign minister Tuesday as he arrived in Damascus.

“Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life,” Lavrov later told Assad, according to Russian state-run news agency ITAR-Tass.”

Lavrov also said Assad is ready for dialogue with the opposition.

“It’s clear that efforts to stop the violence should be accompanied by the beginning of dialogue among the political forces,” he said. “Today we received confirmation of the readiness of the president of Syria for this work.”

Repeated efforts by the Arab League and Russia to broker talks have been rejected by the Syrian opposition, which refuses to hold talks amid the crackdown and says it will accept nothing less than the regime’s downfall.

The violence, meanwhile, continued with regime forces keeping up an assault on Homs, Syria’s third largest city. Activists reported that at least 15 people, including a 15-year-old boy, were killed in violence across the country.

More than 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March, the U.N. said early last month. Hundreds more are believe to have been killed since then, but the U.N. says the chaos in the country has made it impossible to cross-check the figures.

Syria has blocked access to trouble spots and prevented independent reporting, making it nearly impossible to verify accounts from either side. The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime.

Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed suffered a setback over the weekend when efforts by the U.S. and its allies in the U.N. Security Council to condemn the violence in Syria were blocked by Russia and China.

A series of European countries, including France and Italy, announced they had recalled their ambassadors to Syria, a day after the U.S. closed its embassy in Damascus. The diplomatic moves were a clear message that Western powers see no point in engaging with Assad and now will seek to bolster Syria’s opposition.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also called the Security Council veto a “fiasco” and said his country cannot remain silent about the massacres in Syria and will continue to support the Arab League efforts.

“We will launch a new initiative with countries that stand by the Syrian people instead of the regime,” Erdogan said without elaborating.

It was not clear what kind of steps Turkey might be planning. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has called for “friends of democratic Syria” to unite and rally against Assad’s regime, previewing the possible formation of a group of like-minded nations to coordinate assistance to the Syrian opposition from outside the U.N.

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