China seeks "peaceful" resolution in Syria

China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun (L) talks with Malawi's President Bingu wa Mutharika at State House, in Lilongwe 26 January before Beijing officially opend its embasy in Lilongwe. Malawi last week became the fourth African country to switch diplomatic allegiance to Beijing since 2000. Taiwan now has only 23 allies worldwide, five of whom are African states. AFP PHOTO / AMOS GUMULIRA (Photo credit should read AMOS GUMULIRA/AFP/Getty Images)
China's Assistant Foreign Minister Zhai Jun in pictured in January 26, 2008 file photo in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhai Jun arrives in Damascus on Friday to try to step up diplomatic efforts for ending the 11-month violence in Syria. The visit comes two weeks after China drew global condemnation for vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that backed an Arab plan urging Syrian President Bashar Assad to quit.

Before leaving Thursday, Zhai Jun said his country does not approve of armed intervention to force regime change in Syria, adding that his two-day trip was intended to end the violence in "peaceful" ways.

The visit comes only days after Beijing said the United Nations should tread carefully in the strife-torn country or risk worsening violence in the government's crackdown on opposition groups.

"He will exchange views with the Syrian government and parties concerned in Syria on the current ... situation to push for a peaceful and proper resolution" of the crisis, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin told a regular briefing on Wednesday.

He added that the Chinese will play "a constructive role in mediation."

Beijing said last week Zhai had held talks with a key Syrian opposition group, the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change, which it said called for China "to play a bigger role" in resolving the Syrian crisis.

According to diplomatic sources, the Chinese official was set to meet with three opposition parties in the Chinese embassy in Damascus later tomorrow, following his meeting with Assad.

China has repeatedly defended its decision to veto the Security Council resolution, saying it would not protect the regime of Assad and that its priority was to prevent further violence.

The U.N. General Assembly, however, voted on Thursday on an Arab-sponsored resolution condemning the Syrian government. The measure - which cannot be vetoed in the Assembly - is nonbinding.

At least 5,400 people have been killed in the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters, according to the U.N. Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed gangs affiliated with al Qaeda and say more than 2,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

Imad Mustafa, Syria's former ambassador to the United States and now ambassador to China, told China's Xinhua news agency this week that any Chinese envoy would be warmly welcomed.

Zhai's visit will come during an escalation in violence in Syria, especially in the central city of Homs. It also comes ahead of a Feb. 26 referendum on a new Constitution that would create a multi-party system in a country that has been ruled by the Baath Party for 40 years.

Assad opponents said the referendum and other reforms will not be enough, and insist Assad must go. The White House has also dismissed the referendum.

Russian Chairman of the State Duma International Affairs Committee Alexei Pushkov will also travel to Damascus this month to get familiar with the situation in the country, according to Syrian sources.

The two visits follow one by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who days after the double-veto traveled to Damascus, while the United States shut its embassy and many European countries recalled their envoys.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, however, holding Russian flags turned out to greet the Russian envoy and say "Thank you."