Battles in Syria as Russia warns of ‘last chance’

By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian forces attacked flashpoint areas Sunday, carrying out raids and clashing with rebels as President Bashar Assad's allies in Russia said the country may be facing its last chance for peace.

Syrian activists reported clashes in Daraa, the southern province where the uprising began last March.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, Muneef al-Zaeem, said government troops invaded the town of Nawa, with a population of 100,000.

International condemnation and high-level diplomacy have failed to stop the year-old Syria crisis. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed, many of them civilians. In recent months, the uprising has transformed into an armed insurgency as army defectors and others say they want to bring down the regime by force.

The U.S., Europe and many Arab states have called on Assad to stand down, but Russia and China have protected Syria from condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. Syria is Moscow's last remaining ally in the Middle East and is a major customer for Russia's arms industry, but Russia has recently shown impatience with Assad.

"This may be the last chance for Syria to avoid a protracted bloody civil war," Medvedev told Kofi Annan, the U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria, during a meeting in Moscow. "Therefore we will provide any assistance at any level."

Annan travels next to China.

Seeking to stop the violence, the U.S. and other key allies are considering providing Syrian rebels with communications help, medical aid and other "non-lethal" assistance.

President Barack Obama discussed the aid options Sunday in a lengthy private meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The leaders are in Seoul, South Korea, for a nuclear security summit.

As the conflict turns increasingly violent, Human Rights Watch accused Syrian forces of using civilians as human shields during recent military operations.

In a new report Sunday, the New York-based international watchdog said the Syrian army and pro-regime gunmen forced residents to march in front of them as they advanced on opposition-held areas in the northern Idlib province earlier this month.

The group cited witnesses who said it was clear that the purpose of the marching order was to protect the army from attack.

"By using civilians as human shields, the Syrian army is showing blatant disregard for their safety," said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The Syrian army should immediately stop this abhorrent practice."


AP writer Dale Gavlak contributed to this report from Amman, Jordan.

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