44 more deaths reported in Syria

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REUTERS

A Civil Defence member extinguishes a fire at the site of an explosion outside Syria's highest court in central Damascus.

Syrian forces killed at least 44 people near Damascus overnight, the opposition said on Friday, as diplomatic efforts intensified to secure a plan for political transition.

Activists posted photographs online of dozens of bodies wrapped in blood-splattered shrouds, and said women and children were among those killed in the Douma area. On Thursday, 180 people died across the country.

Rebels claimed on Friday in a video to have kidnapped a colonel and brigadier from the regime's forces.

In a taped interview with Iranian state television, which was broadcast Thursday, President Bashar al-Assad blamed the rebels for the failure of international mediator Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan.

“No one is better aware of the situation in Syria than Syria itself, therefore we will not accept any external solutions, regardless of whether they come from big powers or friendly states,” al-Assad said.

He praised his main ally in the region, Iran, and described it as one of the “wise governments” that is helping him to protect Syria's sovereignty and stability.

Despite Russia's insistence, Iran was not been invited to the meeting Saturday in Geneva, following strong opposition from the United States.

On Friday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said: “We should not allow that countries from outside this region raise hasty decisions such as military action and hence endanger the region's security,” according to the Fars news agency.

He warned regional countries that the West was neither concerned about Syria nor the region, but only their own interests, “primarily for creating a safe haven for the Zionist regime (Israel).”

The Action Group meeting Saturday in Geneva is expected to be attended by the five permanent members's of the UN Security Council - the US, Russia, China, France, Britain - the foreign ministers of Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar, and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

A draft document on the transition plan, obtained by dpa, states that Annan will outline “rapid steps” leading to a political settlement.

The transitional government could include “members of the present government and the opposition and other groups, but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation.”

Much could change after a meeting later Friday in St Petersburg between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

In the rare interview, al-Assad stressed that he bore no hostility towards Turkey despite its support for the rebels, but he failed to apologise for the downing of a Turkish fighter jet last week by his forces.

Turkey this week threatened to use force in future incidents involving Syria. - Sapa-dpa


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