Exclusive - "Friends of Syria" to call for ceasefire

BEIRUT Thu Feb 23, 2012 5:30pm GMT

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Western and Arab powers meeting in Tunis on Friday will call on Syria to implement an immediate ceasefire to allow aid groups to deliver relief supplies to areas worst hit by the violence, according to a draft of their declaration.

The draft conclusion of the "Friends of Syria" meeting urges President Bashar al-Assad's government "to implement an immediate ceasefire and to allow free and unimpeded access by the UN ... and humanitarian agencies."

Those agencies should be allowed to carry out a full assessment of the needs in stricken areas including Homs, where government forces have bombarded opposition neighbourhoods for 20 days, killing many hundreds of people according to activists.

Friday's meeting in Tunisia brings together representatives from more than 70 nations including the United States, Britain, France, Turkey and Gulf Arab states for the first gathering of the Friends of Syria. In the absence of plans for military intervention, they are likely to focus on humanitarian support.

The draft conclusion, obtained by Reuters, demands that "humanitarian agencies be permitted to deliver vital relief goods and services to civilians affected by the violence."

Activists say the army is blocking medical supplies to parts of Homs, where hospitals, schools, shops and government offices are closed. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been trying to get the government and rebel forces to agree daily two-hour ceasefires.

Despite an international protest over the previous day's death toll of more than 80, according to activists, the Syrian military continued pounding rebel Sunni Muslim districts of Homs city on Thursday.

Another section of the Tunis statement still in brackets, suggesting it was subject to change, supports the creation of a United Nations-led humanitarian task force "to coordinate the international humanitarian response, including the establishment of appropriate funding mechanisms."

QUALIFIED ENDORSEMENT

The draft praises the main opposition Syrian National Council, which will be present in Tunis, but falls short of a full endorsement, recognising it as "a legitimate representative of Syrians seeking peaceful democratic change."

The statement agrees "to increase its engagement with and practical [non-military] support for all elements of the Syrian opposition."

The conclusion expresses "disappointment" that the U.N Security Council was unable to endorse an Arab League proposal calling for Assad to delegate power to his deputy to negotiate with a transitional government.

Russia and China, absent from the Tunis meeting, vetoed a resolution which would have backed the Arab League position.

The Friends of Syria statement also encourages the Arab League to resume a much criticised monitoring mission, which was suspended in January after violence escalated in Syria.

It expresses readiness "to assist the Arab League in securing a greater number of monitors and U.N.-supported training and technical assistance."

Assad has vowed to crush what he says are foreign-backed terrorists, while implementing political reform including a referendum on Sunday for a new constitution which would pave the way for a multiparty parliamentary election in three months.

But the Friends group draft statement says that efforts "to impose a set of political steps labelled as reforms would not resolve the crisis."

(Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)

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