- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

BEIRUT — Gunmen attacked a pro-government TV station Wednesday near the Syrian capital, killing seven employees in the latest barrage of violence as world powers prepared for a high-level meeting that the U.S. hopes will be a turning point in the crisis.

Invitations to Saturday’s gathering in Geneva were sent by special envoy Kofi Annan to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council - including Syria allies Russia and China - but not to major regional players Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The absence of those two countries, as well as the lack of any appetite for international military intervention, could make it difficult for the group to find the leverage to end the bloodshed in Syria. An effort by Mr. Annan to broker a peace plan failed earlier this year.

Diplomatic hopes have rested on Russia - Syria’s most important ally and protector - agreeing on a transition plan that would end the Assad family dynasty, which has ruled Syria for more than four decades.

But Moscow has rejected efforts by outside forces to end the conflict or any plan to force regime change in Damascus.

The U.N. said Wednesday that the conflict, which began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring that swept aside entrenched leaders across the region, is descending into sectarian warfare.

President Bashar Assad so far has appeared largely impervious to world pressure, and he has warned the international community from meddling in the crisis, which has seen a sharp escalation in violence in recent months. He said Tuesday that his country is in “a genuine state of war,” an increasingly common refrain from the Syrian leader.

Mr. Assad denies there is any popular will behind the uprising, which is in its 16th month, saying terrorists are driving a foreign conspiracy to destroy the country. Activists say more than 14,000 people have been killed in the violence.

An Associated Press photographer said the attack on the Al-Ikhbariya TV station in the town of Drousha, about 14 miles south of the capital Damascus, left bloodstains on the ground and bullet holes in the walls. The attack heavily damaged five portable buildings used for offices and studios.

Al-Ikhbariya is privately owned but strongly supports the regime.

Activists blamed the attack on elite Syrian troops who defected from the regime Tuesday. The allegation could not be independently confirmed.

On Wednesday, the U.N. gave a grim assessment of the ongoing crisis, saying the violence has worsened since April, when the cease-fire brokered by Mr. Annan was supposed to go into effect. There also were signs the bloodshed is descending into sectarian warfare.

“Where previously victims were targeted on the basis of their being pro- or anti-government, the Commission of Inquiry has recorded a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation,” a panel of U.N.-appointed human rights experts said in a report released in Geneva.

Sectarian warfare is one of the most dire scenarios in Syria, which for decades managed to ward off the kind of bloodshed that has long bedeviled Iraq and Lebanon.

Sunnis make up most of Syria’s 22 million people, as well as the backbone of the opposition. But the Assads and the ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which has bred deep resentments.

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