Handout / Reuters
Demonstrators protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after Friday prayers in Habeet, near Idlib, Friday
Updated 1:30 p.m. ET: Major Western and Arab powers meeting in Geneva on Saturday adopted a watered-down version of special envoy Kofi Annan's Syria peace plan that leaves open whether President Bashar al-Assad can be part of the transition government.
"It is for the people of Syria to come to a political agreement." Annan said. "I will doubt that the Syrians who have fought so hard to have independence ... will select people with blood on their hands to lead them," he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the deal in Geneva "paves the way" for a post-Assad unity government. Assad should hear "loudly and clearly" that his days are numbered, she said. "It is now incumbent on Russia and China to show Assad the writing on the wall," Clinton said.
Russia had refused to back a provision that would call for Assad to step down, insisting that outsiders cannot order a political solution for Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov underscored the point that the plan does not require Assad's ouster, saying there is "no attempt in the document to impose on the Syrian people any type of transitional process."
Lavrov warned that there is an attempt to provoke a spiral of violence and incite sectarian hatred in Syria.
A transitional governing body could include members of the current government and opposition and would be formed by mutual consent, Reuters reported. The pact calls for constitutional reform and free and fair elections, Reuters reported.
Annan said the Syria action group nations did not set a time for its next meeting.
On Friday, Syrian troops shelled a suburb of Damascus, killing an estimated 125 civilians and 60 soldiers, Syrian human rights activists said. The uprising in Syria since March of last year has killed some 14,000 people.
Syria on Saturday retook control of the restive Damascus suburb of Douma, where fleeing residents said most civilians had cleared out.
Foreign ministers from Western powers and Arab countries attended the meeting convened by Annan to try to forge a common strategy to end the 16 month-old conflict in Syria but differences remained over the fate of Assad.
Clinton held talks on Friday night in St. Petersburg with Lavrov but failed to resolve differences, Reuters said.
Russia, Assad's main ally, insists that any transition plan must not be imposed on Syria by foreign powers.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, arriving for the talks, told Reuters that it was “absolutely essential that the violence stops and that a political transition can begin.”
“Kofi Annan made reasonable propositions and I hope that they will be upheld and that's the point of today's discussions,” he added.
Hopes have centered on persuading Russia — Syria's most important ally, protector and arms supplier — to agree to a plan that would end the four-decade rule of the Assad family dynasty.
But the Russians want Syria alone to be the master of its fate, at a time when Assad's regime and the opposition are increasingly bitterly polarized.
A bomb targeting Syria's highest court has exploded in Damascus. NBC's Bill Neely reports.
"Ultimately, we want to stop the bloodshed in Syria. If that comes through political dialogue, we are willing to do that," said Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, a coalition of Syrian opposition groups based in Istanbul, Turkey. "We are not willing to negotiate (with) Mr. Assad and those who have murdered Syrians. We are not going to negotiate unless they leave Syria."
International tensions also heightened last week after Syria shot down a Turkish warplane, leading to Turkey setting up anti-aircraft guns on its border with its neighbor.
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