Russia and Syria have denied reports that a pair of Russian warships with a team of special forces on board has arrived in Syria, even as the UN Security Council prepares to discuss the latest attempt at a statement to urge the end the bloodshed in the country.
A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman said a Russian tanker had been in Russia's Syrian port of Tartus for the last 10 days, but he said that "no warship is on a mission in Syria."
The spokesman said the tanker, "Iman," was in Tartus to help with antipiracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency quoted a military source as denouncing the reports as part of a "campaign of lies" against Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad's regime has been fighting a yearlong insurgency.
Russia, a longtime Syria ally, holds the Tartus base and is a major arms supplier to Syria's government.
Later on March 20, the United Nations Security Council is expected to discuss a draft statement urging Syria to cooperate with efforts by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to end the bloodshed in the country.
There were no immediate details on the nonbinding draft statement being proposed by France.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 20 that Moscow was willing to support a Security Council statement, or resolution, backing Annan's efforts -- but, Lavrov added, any such statement couldn't contain an ultimatum targeting the Syrian regime.
Russia and China have vetoed earlier Western-backed efforts to win approval for a binding Security Council resolution condemning Assad's violent crackdown on opponents.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on March 20 that the bloodshed in Syria had become "intolerable," noting UN estimates that more than 8,000 people have been killed in the Syrian violence in the past year.
Humanitarian Aid Attempts
Special envoy Annan, a former UN secretary-general, has asked the Security Council to unite behind his plan to end the bloodshed.
Annan's peace proposals have not been made public. But media reports said they include an end to violence, humanitarian access to violence-hit zones, the release of detainees held over the past year, and a withdrawal of security forces from flashpoint cities of antiregime protests.
Annan held talks with Assad over the weekend and also sent a five-member team of experts to Syria to discuss a monitoring mission.
Russia on March 19 joined calls for a daily truce to allow humanitarian access and the evacuation of the wounded.
The call came after the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, met with Foreign Minister Lavrov on March 19 in Moscow.
Hicham Hassan, a spokesman for the ICRC, cautioned that the success of the initiative rests with the Syrian government.
"We don't know when an impact of our talks will happen, but we certainly hope it will happen within the next two days, as soon as possible. We know that the needs on a humanitarian level are there, they are urgent and this is why we have launched our initiative," Hassan said.
"The main thing that remains for us is that those who will take a decision on this initiative are the Syrian authorities and the opposition in Syria. This is why they remain in our main interlocutors."
Opposition Accused Of Abuses
Syrian activists said rebels of the Free Syrian Army pulled out of the eastern city of Deir al-Zor on March 20 after a two-day armored assault by government forces.
Government forces also reportedly shelled residential areas in the flashpoint cities of Hama and Homs, as well as the nearby town of Rastan.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch has accused some "armed opposition elements" in Syria of carrying out serious human rights abuses.
The U.S.-based group said the abuses carried out by some armed opponents of the regime include kidnapping, detention, and torture of Syrian security-force members and government supporters.
Human Rights Watch's Middle East director, Sarah Leah Whitson, said the Syrian regime had used "brutal tactics" against the opposition -- but she said this could not be used to justify abuses by armed opposition groups.
President Assad's government has accused "terrorists" of being behind the year-old revolt against the regime.
Some elements of the opposition, however, say their supporters have been forced to take up weapons after government forces used tanks and snipers on peaceful protests.
With AFP, Interfax, and AP reporting