Annan has Syrian reply, but questions remain

U.N. peace envoy Kofi Annan speaks to the media after a meeting with Syrian National Council members in Ankara, Turkey, Tuesday, March 13, 2012.
AP Photo

(CBS/AP) UNITED NATIONS - Efforts by Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria, to end the government's violence against its own people have borne little and the former United Nations Secretary-General was seeking clarification from the Syrian authorities over their response to his proposals, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Wednesday.

"Given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realize that time is of the essence," Fawzi said. "As he said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on."

Syria said on Wednesday it responded positively to proposals by Annan for ending the escalating violence that has killed thousands of civilians, Reuters reported.

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Fawzi gave no details on the proposals or response, but U.S. officials said the Syrian reply to Annan was unacceptable, notably because it does not include any reference to the demands of the Arab League for a political transition that would see Assad step down.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter said it was "not positive but not unexpected either."

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Annan has not publicly released the response, said it did not mention steps toward a transition, an end to government attacks on the opposition or the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas.

Annan visited Syria over the weekend and had two meetings with President Bashar Assad. U.N. diplomats said Annan will brief the Security Council on Friday.

Negotiations on a new UN draft resolution are expected to accelerate after Annan's briefing, diplomats said.

It was still unclear if Moscow and Beijing would support the resolution. Russia and China have vetoed two previous resolutions, saying they were unbalanced and demanded an end to government attacks only, not the opposition.

Meanwhile, French President Nicolas Sarkozy likened Syrian leader Bashar Assad to a "murderer" while Russia said it was arming his regime, reflecting the ongoing divisions in the international community over how to bring the violence in Syria to an end.

Assad "is today behaving like a murderer and will have to answer for himself at the International Criminal Court," Sarkozy said.

The French leader, whose country was Syria's one-time colonial ruler, urged humanitarian corridors to allow refugees out and aid into the country.

"We must obtain humanitarian corridors, and for that we must unblock the Russian veto and Chinese veto" at the U.N. Security Council, Sarkozy told Europe-1 radio.

"The French army can in no way intervene" in Syria without U.N. backing, Sarkozy said. France has been active in efforts to end fighting in Syria, and was a leading player in the U.N.-mandated, NATO-led airstrike campaign in Libya.

Sarkozy reached out to both Assad and Libya's Muammar Qaddafi earlier in his tenure to try get them to cooperate with the international community. But after both leaders responded to uprisings last year with military repression of protesters, Sarkozy abandoned his support for them.

The U.N. estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in Syria a year ago inspired by Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms.

The divisions over Syria were further evident with the news that Italy was joining a string of countries closing their embassies in Syria to protest the bloodshed.

Italy's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday it has closed its embassy and recalled its staff and reaffirmed "the strongest condemnation of the unacceptable violence by the Syrian regime against its own citizen."

Britain, Canada, France, Spain and the United States have each announced the closure of their embassies to protest the crackdown.

Sarkozy played down concerns about violence in Libya and the country's direction after Qaddafi's ouster.

"A country three times larger than France with 6 million residents, you have to leave it a bit of time. You cannot pass from dictatorship to democracy in 6 months," he said.