BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria’s government banned 17 Western diplomats and its helicopter gunships pounded rebels in a coastal province on Tuesday as President Bashar al-Assad defied international pressure to halt his campaign to crush the uprising against his rule.
The declaration that ambassadors from the United States, Canada, Turkey and several European countries were unwelcome was retaliation for the expulsion of Syrian envoys from their capitals last week, following the massacre of more than 100 civilians by suspected Assad loyalists.
On the battlefront, rebels fought with government forces backed by helicopter gunships in the heaviest clashes in coastal Latakia province since the revolt against Assad’s rule broke out 15 months ago.
The clashes in Latakia province were a rare surge of violence in a province outside Syria’s usual trail of bloodshed.
Latakia province is home to several towns inhabited by members of the minority Alawite sect, a Shi’ite offshoot to which Assad himself belongs and which has been wary of the mostly Sunni-led uprising.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting was in mostly Sunni areas in and around the city of Haffeh.
It was the second day of combat since the rebels declared they would no longer abide by an internationally brokered ceasefire, saying that the government had continued the repression in defiance of United Nations peace observers.
Rebel fighters said nine of their comrades were killed, while the Observatory said two civilians and 22 soldiers were killed.
Activists also reported heavy fire by government forces on the city of Homs, a focal point of the uprising that endured a bloody siege for weeks earlier this year.
The latest developments emphasised the precarious state of a peace plan brokered by Nobel Peace laureate Kofi Annan, who has shuttled between Damascus and other capitals on behalf of the United Nations and Arab League.
Foreign governments are still clinging to the plan as the only option for finding a political solution and preventing a wider and bloodier conflict. But with the failure of the ceasefire and Assad’s intransigence, it is all but in tatters.
In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Gulf Arab states had begun to lose hope that the peace plan would find a solution.
The comments are significant as Sunni-ruled Gulf countries have led international efforts to oust Assad, who is allied to their main rival Shi’ite Iran, and have hinted in the past they were willing to arm the rebels.
Nevertheless, Russia and China, Assad’s principal defenders on the diplomatic front, said on Tuesday that Annan’s efforts should not be abandoned.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, meeting in Beijing, urged international support for the plan despite calls from Arab and Western states for a tougher response to the bloodshed.
The two countries, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council with the power to veto resolutions, have stymied efforts by Western powers to condemn or call for the removal of Assad.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu criticised mixed messages from the international community and blamed wrangling in the Security Council for the deaths of Syrian civilians.
“There should be a more coherent, one voice by the ineternational community,” he said at a World Economic Forum conference in Istanbul on Tuesday.
“Because of the (UNSC) veto power and because of the internal dynamics of the U.N. Security Council permanent members ... the process was delayed and because of that delay...thousands of people are being killed.”
The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed more than 10,000 people since the uprising against his family’s four-decade rule of Syria broke out in March 2011.
Assad says he is fighting to save the country from foreign-backed “terrorists” and will carry out his own reform programme. The government says more than 2,700 soldiers or security personnel have been killed by opposition forces.
Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the move to declare the 17 Western diplomats personae non grata was a response to the coordinated expulsions of Syrian envoys by 10 countries last week over the massacre at Houla. The act was largely symbolic, as most of those envoys had been recalled earlier by their own embassies.
But Syria said it was still open to re-establishing ties on a basis of “principles of equality and mutual respect,” a ministry statement said.
The diplomats, most of them ambassadors, included envoys from the United States, Canada, Britain, France and Turkey.
Turkey is a former Assad ally and now a strong opponent which has provided haven to army defectors, rebels and refugees.
A Turkish official said almost 2,700 Syrians had fled to Turkey during the first five days of June, mostly into Hatay, a south-eastern province that juts into Syrian territory.
More than 78,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the U.N. refugee agency says. At least 500,000 Syrians are internally displaced in their country and many have lost their homes, according to the Syrian Red Crescent.
Syria agreed on Tuesday to allow the United Nations and international agencies to expand humanitarian operations in the country, where at least 1 million people need urgent assistance, a senior U.N. aid official said.
The U.N. is to open field offices in four violence-plagued provinces - Deraa, Deir al-Zor, Homs and Idlib — and Syrian officials have pledged to accelerate visas for aid workers and customs clearance for relief goods, said John Ging, who chaired a Syrian Humanitarian Forum in Geneva.
“Freedom of movement, unimpeded access for humanitarian action within Syria, is what it’s all about now. The good faith of the (Syrian) government will be tested on this issue today, tomorrow and every day.
At least 500,000 Syrians are internally displaced in their country and many have lost their homes, according to the Syrian Red Crescent. More than 78,000 Syrians have fled to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, the U.N. refugee agency says.
Additional reporting by Can Sezer in Turkey and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Angus Macswan and Erika Solomon; Editing by Michael Roddy