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Annan to hold second meeting with Assad

Former UN chief Kofi Annan was set to hold a second round of talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday on his mission to end a year of bloodshed, after the army stormed a rebel stronghold.

Diplomats at the United Nations in New York expressed pessimism about the prospects for Annan's mission after troops poured into the northwestern city of Edeib late on Saturday just hours after his first meeting with Assad.

Activists had expressed concern that the city would suffer a similar fate to the Homs neighborhood of Baba Amr, which was stormed by government troops on March 1 after a month-long bombardment in which hundreds of people died.

Syrian state television said there was a "positive atmosphere" to Saturday's talks between Assad and the former UN chief, their first since Annan's appointment as United Nations-Arab League envoy on the conflict.

Annan described the meeting as "candid and comprehensive," in a statement released by the United Nations.

Assad said he would back any "honest" bid to end the violence that monitors say has claimed more than 7,500 lives since March last year, but warned dialogue would fail if "terrorist groups" remained, state media said.

Annan expressed "grave concern" to Assad over the persistent bloodshed and "urged the president to take concrete steps to end the current crisis," the UN statement said.

He "put several proposals on the table regarding stopping the violence and the killing, access for humanitarian agencies and the International Committee of the Red Cross, release of detainees and the start of an inclusive political dialogue," it added.

Thirty-two civilians were among the 91 people killed nationwide on Saturday. Thirty-nine rebel fighters and 20 soldiers also died.

Twenty-two of the civilians and 22 of the rebels were killed in Edleb province.

At the UN, talks on a new US-led attempt in the Security Council to issue a resolution condemning the Syrian regime’s use of violence hit a dead end, although US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet on the sidelines of Monday's meeting in New York.

Russia and China say the Western nations only want a resolution to back regime change. Lavrov said Russia opposes "crude interference" in Syria's internal affairs, his ministry said after a meeting between Lavrov and Annan in Cairo late on Friday.

Russia wants any resolution to call equally on the government and opposition groups to halt the violence. The Western members say the security force assault and attacks by opposition groups cannot be put on the same level.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who is to brief Monday's meeting, has bluntly accused Assad's troops of using "disproportionate" force against what started out as peaceful demonstrations.

-AFP/NOW Lebanon

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