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Britain To Push For Tougher Syria Measures In Tunis


Syrians climb a pole and hold opposition flags during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib, on February 21.

Syrians climb a pole and hold opposition flags during a protest against President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib, on February 21.

Foreign Secretary William Hague says Britain will push for a tightening of the diplomatic and economic "stranglehold" on the Damascus government at a major international meeting on Syria.

Hague said the meeting of the so-called "Friends of Syria" group in Tunis on February 24 would seek to bolster sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad's regime over his bloody crackdown on opponents.

Diplomats said Western and Arab states at the meeting would also demand that Assad call a cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid into the hardest-hit areas.

The "Friends of Syria" meeting is the first since the group was set up after a double veto earlier this month by Russia and China blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning Assad's regime and demanding a transfer of power.

It will gather foreign ministers and officials from more than 70 countries.

Russia has denounced the meeting as one-sided and refused to attend. China has refused to commit itself.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on February 23 that in a telephone conversation between the two countries' foreign ministers, Russia and China reconfirmed their opposition to foreign intervention in Syria and their support for talks with Assad's regime.

UN Points Finger At Syrian Officials

Meanwhile in Tehran, the top policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, was quoted as saying that attempts to "topple" Assad's regime would fail and that Iran "stands firmly" by the Syrian government.

Syrian rights activists say more than 7,600 people -- mostly civilians but also rebel fighters and soldiers -- have died since the popular uprising in Syria began a year ago.

A commission appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on February 23 that top officials of the Syrian government may be responsible for crimes against humanity.

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said that a "reliable body" of evidence exists suggesting that particular individuals, including commanding officers and high government officials, are responsible for crimes against humanity and rights violations.

The panel indicated that the list of officials could go as high as President Assad. However, the list was not made publicly available.

The commission of inquiry said that rebel forces led by the Free Syrian Army had also committed crimes -- "although not comparable in scale" to the government's.

Homs Shelling Continues

Meanwhile, Syrian government forces have resumed shelling the opposition stronghold of Homs, reportedly the 20th consecutive day of the government's assault on the city, in an offensive Syrian activists say has killed hundreds.

Two Western journalists -- along with a reported 30 Syrian civilians -- were killed in shelling in Homs on February 22.

Three Western journalists were also wounded in the shelling. One of them, French journalist Edith Bouvier, in a video posted online by opposition activists, asked to be urgently evacuated.

The Syrian government said it was not responsible for the journalists' deaths, saying the two journalists had "sneaked" into the country at their own risk.

The Syrian government has barred foreign media from operating freely in the country to cover the conflict.

With AFP and AP reporting
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