| UNITED NATIONS
UNITED NATIONS U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan will meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday on a peace mission to Syria, where pro-democracy protests have deteriorated into near civil war, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on Friday.
Ban told reporters in New York that he held a conference call with Annan and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Araby earlier on Friday. He said Annan planned to leave Damascus on Sunday to visit other countries in the region.
"He's (Annan) going to meet President Assad tomorrow morning in Damascus," Ban said. "And he'll be meeting civil society leaders."
"All three of us (Ban, Annan and Elaraby) share the same concerns, same priorities and same approaches," he said. "Our priority is, first of all, all violence must stop, whether by government forces (or) opposition forces."
"I have very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure that there must be an immediate ceasefire," Ban said, adding that it would be ideal if both the rebels and government forces halted their fighting simultaneously.
If that is not possible, then government forces should stop first and the opposition should follow immediately. After that, Ban said, there should be "inclusive political solutions" found through dialogue.
On Friday in Syria, government forces killed at least 54 people. In the rebellious central city of Homs, tank rounds and mortar bombs crashed into opposition districts, killing 17, while 24 were killed in the northern province of Idlib and more deaths were reported elsewhere.
Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people since the anti-Assad uprising began a year ago, according to a U.N. estimate. The government said in December that "armed terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Ban said it is also necessary to ensure access for humanitarian aid agencies, something U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos attempted to arrange during her visit to Syria this week.
He added that Annan, a former U.N. chief and Ban's predecessor, would meet with Syrian opposition leaders outside of Syria as well.
After leaving Syria, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said on Friday in Ankara that she had demanded unhindered access for humanitarian aid to victims of Syria's turmoil, but President Bashar al-Assad's government had not yet given it.
Ban said that what Amos saw in the devastated Baba Amr district of Homs, which was under siege for a month, showed that there was a "quite serious, alarming situation in terms of humanitarian assistance and human rights."
Amos wants "robust and sustainable humanitarian access" throughout Syria, he said.
(Writing by Michelle Nichols and Louis Charbonneau; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara)