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Syria: attack on Homs continues as Assad talks of dialogue - Tuesday 7 February | World news

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Category: World News
Published on Tuesday, 07 February 2012 Written by Super User

7.54pm: This comes from the english language twitter account of the Al Arabiya satellite news channel:

7.42pm: The US is considering providing humanitarian aid to the Syrian people, according to Reuters.

"We are going to continue to work with international allies ... to put the pressure required," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Carney reiterated that the Obama administration was not weighing the prospects of arming anti-government forces seeking to topple Assad.

But without offering details, he said: "We are exploring the possibilty of providing humanitarian aid to Syrians."

7.26pm: In light of recent events, the time has come for the international community to carefully consider the various military options available in relation to Syria, according to Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre and a fellow at the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

No one should take such intervention lightly but, just as proponents of intervention must make their case for how the military option could "work", opponents of intervention face a similar burden of explaining how staying the current course will work, he says in a post for CNN. He adds:

No one, to my knowledge, is advocating for an Iraq-style invasion with tens of thousands of American boots on the ground.

The options being considered are far more limited -- funding and arming the Free Syria Army, establishing "safe zones" in the north and a targeted air mission to weaken the Syrian military's capabilities.

To be sure, all of these are serious forms of military intervention, but bringing up the specter of Iraq can be misleading, just as it was in Libya.

So we find ourselves in an odd but increasingly common situation, where Syrians themselves are more enthusiastic about foreign military intervention than Americans are.

It is, in this sense, the reverse of Iraq, which was rightly seen by many as a tragic Western imposition.

7.06pm: Here's a tweet from Ahmad H. Aggour, via Andy Carvin:

6.58pm: The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released a statement following a meeting between Libya's Deputy Minister of Culture and Civil Society, Dr Atia Lawgali, and Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister for the Middle East and North Africa. Burt said:

We agreed that the development of civil society – associations, charities, and campaign groups that can represent different groups and stakeholders - is vitally important to the creation of a society where all views can be heard.

Such groups were severely restricted under the Gaddafi regime but, as I saw when I visited Libya last December, a vibrant civil society is emerging.

I am delighted that the Deputy Minister is visiting the UK to see how such groups work alongside government - both holding it to account and working with it to achieve common objectives.

6.47pm: Bashar al-Assad's position after today's meeting with Russian's foreign minster, Sergei Lavrov, looked like the familiar "window-dressing" say diplomats and analysts but some hope of hope of diplomatic movement was also detected, according to Ian Black, the Guardian's Middle East editor.

"Assad still has his head in the sand if he thinks he can talk about reform without showing any results while he carries on the security crackdown," said one western official.

"But it was encouraging that Lavrov showed support for the Arab League plan after vetoing it at the UN."

Here's some more from Ian on what might come next:

Ian Black

British diplomats said William Hague, the foreign secretary, was planning to speak to Lavrov to hear a full account of his meeting with the Syrian leader.

Hague also plans to talk to Sheikh Hamed bin Jassim Al Thani, Qatar's prime minister and the Arab League's chief hawk on Syria. The league is to meet in Cairo on Saturday to review the crisis.

Next moves including a first meeting of the new Friends of Syria grouping, which will work outside the UN to back Syria's opposition and seek a peaceful solution to the crisis.

It looks unlikely for now at least to follow the example of the "Contact Group" set up to handle Libya last year and formally recognise Assad's opponents as a legitimate government or openly supply them with weapons. Individual countries may do so in secret, however.

But John McCain, the US republican senator, called on the US look at that possibility now. "We should start considering all options, including arming the opposition, " he told reporters in Washington. "The blood-letting has got to stop."

European countries are planning new efforts to forge greater unity amongst the Syrian opposition, which is beset by rivalries and divisions.

These risk bursting into the open if Assad — prodded by the Russians — does eventually make any substantive political concessions.

6.31pm: An Islamist leader in Algeria has warned that the country will witness a "social explosion" if a legislative election in May is marred by fraud.

The Associated Press reports that the comments from Abdelmadjid Menasra echoed those by other Islamist politicians in recent weeks as Algeria gears up for the fourth set of parliamentary elections in north Africa since October, with the three others won by religious-influenced parties.

While Algeria has not witnessed the mass protests calling for reform that ripped through other states in the region, there is widespread discontent over the lack of jobs and housing. AP has more:

Buoyed by electoral successes of their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, Islamists in Algeria are predicting major wins during the election.

"I am warning the Ministry of Interior against any inclinations towards fraud because this would inevitably lead to a social explosion," Menasra was quoted as saying in the Arabic daily El Khabar. "If we do not open the door to democratic change, we will open the door to anarchy."

He went on to say that "in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, it is the same people, with the same desire for change and the same urge to have Islamists manage the affairs of state."

Algeria's secular leaders, however, have spoken of an "Algerian exception" to this electoral trend, predicting the Islamists will not do well. Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said he didn't fear a strong showing by Islamists but rather was afraid of an apathetic electorate.
The vote is in May but no specific date has yet been set.

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has announced several reforms ahead of the election, including a law that allowed several new parties. There are now eight Islamist political parties, which could splinter the religious and conservative vote.

Live blog: substitution

6.31pm: Good evening. This is Ben Quinn taking over the blog.

Live blog: recap

5.58pm: Here's a summary of today's developments:

Syria

The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said Bashar al-Assad told him at a meeting in Syria that a new constitution had been drafted and would be put to a referendum.A UK government spokeswoman reacted with scepticism, claiming that Assad's reported willingness to act stood in "stark contrast" to his actions.

• France, Italy, Germany and Spain joined the UK in recalling their ambassadors from Syria. The six Gulf Co-operation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) also announced that they are withdrawing their envoys and went a step further by expelling the Syrian ambassadors from their own countries.

The regime's onslaught against Homs continues. The Local Co-ordination Committees group said 14 people were killed in Homs today, including a husband and wife and three of their children. It said the death toll across the country was 25. Its reports cannot be independently verified.

Discord within the Syrian opposition appears to have spread to the military defectors. Colonel Riad al-Assad, who has been quoted as the leader of the FSA, dismissed a newly formed group called the Higher Military Council as not representing anybody. The council is reportedly led by General Mustafa al-Sheikh, the highest ranking defector to date.


Egypt

Ex-president Hosni Mubarak failed to appear in court for the latest session of his trial in Cairo. Bad weather is being blamed. Apparently poor visibility meant he could not be transported by helicopter.

5.42pm: The Guardian has been speaking to Homs residents. One, Karam Abu Rabea, said that the siege of the city was "genocidal":


The regime didn't expect us to continue our struggle against them. They didn't think we would persist. So now it is using its last card. It is the genocide card ...

It started with a massacre. Trucks of soldiers pulled up. They executed the women and men inside the house and stabbed the children with knives. They killed four members of the Bahader family, 11 from the A'kra family and six from the al-Muhammad family on 26 January.

"The regime changed its tactics. Instead of doing a ground incursion they are bombarding us from outside. They are using artillery and land-to-air missiles ...Many houses have been demolished. People were still inside them ...

There is no food allowed to get inside neighbourhoods opposing the regime. Especially bread. We don't have any bread. They are targeting the vital installations of the city: bakeries, the hospital, mosques. Some of the bakeries were shut by force. The regime cut off internet and phones on Monday. I have a satellite set, which is why I can speak to you. The Assad regime is trying to destroy Homs completely.

5.35pm: The UK government has reacted with scepticism to the comments by the Russian foreign minister following his meeting with Assad. A Downing Street spokeswoman said:

The foreign secretary is looking to meet with Mr Lavrov, or at least speak to him, as soon as possible. We have seen the reports of Lavrov's visit, but our position has not changed. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its actions, not its words.

Reports that President Assad is ready to talk to all political forces in Syria, to end the violence and set a route for a referendum on a new constitution stand in stark contrast to the actions they are taking and their savage attempt to crush the peaceful protest in Homs.

The claim that Syria wants the Arab League to resume its monitoring lacks any credibility when that initial mission was suspended due to the deteriorating security situation.

5.20pm: The Guardian's Middle East editor, Ian Black, reports on obstacles faced by the Syrian opposition, and tensions within it:

Ian Black

The proliferation of different groups, personal rivalries, incompatible agendas and failing strategies is making it hard for western and Arab governments, who would like to see the sort of unity the Libyan rebels displayed last year.
On the ground, the activists of the Local Co-ordination Committees are finding it harder to function because of arrests and killings. The LCCs operate all over the country and play a key role in filming protests and regime violence to ensure information reaches the wider world. Their most effective weapons are laptops and mobile phones. The casualty figures they collate are considered to be reliable.

The FSA commander is in Turkey and there is little co-ordination with local units. Communications are difficult. Political control of the FSA is a key question for the main opposition grouping, the Syrian National Council (SNC), which is based in Turkey and referred to dismissively by the regime as the "Istanbul council". Reports about the creation of a High Military Council led by a former army general have added to confusion about who is in charge.

The SNC itself looks to be in trouble. Its secular leadership, which includes veterans of the old Damascus Declaration group, is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, some Kurds and others. Its president, Burhan Ghalioun, a respected Paris-based political scientist, was forced to step down on Monday after mounting criticism of his abilities and tactics.

Hopes for a more unified political opposition faded in December after an agreement announced between the SNC and the National Co-ordination Bureau, a Syria-based coalition headed by the veteran leftist Hassan Abdel-Azim, fell apart almost immediately amidst angry recriminations. The failure at the UN last weekend seemed to demolish the SNC's strategy of depending on Arab and western diplomacy. The NCB opposes any outside intervention.

5.00pm: Syrian activist Danny Abdul-Dayem, featured on the blog earlier in a video from the field hospital in Homs (see 11.27am) tells CNN "everyone's becoming used to death here" in a video about what life is like in the city at present.

The video also shows a tank Abdul-Dayem says was captured by the Free Syrian Army.

4.39pm: In quotes carried by the Syrian state news agency, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, questions the commitment of the Syrian opposition to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the country. The statement, released after Lavrov's meeting with President Assad, says:

President al-Assad affirmed his commitment as per the Arab plan to the task of putting an end to violence regardless of its source. To this end, Syria affirms its interest in continuing work with the Arab League observer mission and increasing observer numbers to cover all points and verify any breaches or violations to the principle of not allowing violence regardless of source ...

President al-Assad affirmed today that the committee which was formed to carry out dialogue with all opposition group under the chairmanship of the vice president still has all the necessary authority to carry out this dialogue... It must be assisted by those who can, including those who reject dialogue up until now ...

We believe in the necessity of continuing the efforts aiming at finding a solution and settlement to the Syrian crisis … the Russian side intends to work actively with the Syrian side and with Syria's neighbours and the Arab League… naturally, we will continue work with opposition groups which, for one reason or another, haven't agreed until now to participate in general national dialogue… we believe it's necessary for the countries that have more influence on these groups to work with them.

4.24pm: The Local Co-ordination Committees (LCC) activist group says 11 people have been killed in Homs today, including a husband and wife and three of their children. It names the man as Abdulnasser Ali Ghantawi and says the children who were killed were aged aged two, seven and nine. They were all killed during a raid by Shabiha (pro-Assad militia) in the Sabeel neighbourhood, according to the LCC. It said a fourth child hid in the attic and reported the incident.

This video purports to show a house on fire in Homs today.

The LCC says 10 people have been killed in other areas of Syria today - six in Madaya, in Damascus suburbs, two in Idlib, and one each in Aleppo and Deraa.

Its reports cannot be independently verified.

3.52pm: A member of the Syrian National Council has indicated he would accept some form of dialogue with the Syrian government in Moscow, according to Russia Today.

The SNC has been opposed to any more of talks with the Assad regime.

But George Sabra, who Russia Today describes as a senior member of the council, told Interfax news agency:


The Syrian opposition needs all the help there is. Considering the good relations between the Russian and Syrian nations, Russia has a good chance of playing this part.

We think Russia should provide a roadmap for such a dialogue. Then all the opposition groups can take corresponding steps. But no one will engage in a dialogue just for the dialogue's sake.

3.45pm: A list of email addresses (and passwords) from the Syrian Ministry of Presidential Affairs was mysteriously posted on the internet at the weekend.

Apart from showing the general lack of presidential data security – many of the email users had the same simple password (eg "12345") – it is beginning to provide some interesting tales as journalists and others trawl through the emails.

Among other things, there is advice for President Assad on how to handle his television interview with Barbara Walters which was broadcast on 7 December.

In one section, headed "Mistakes", the presidential office is advised:

It is hugely important and worth mentioning that "mistakes" have been done in the beginning of the crises because we did not have a well-organised "police force". American Psyche can be easily manipulated when they hear that there are "mistakes" done and now we are "fixing it". Its worth mentioning also what is happening now in Wall Street and the way the demonstrations are been suppressed by police men, police dogs and beatings.

Syria: attack on Homs continues as Assad talks of dialogue - Tuesday 7 February | World news George Galloway

Meanwhile, the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, has been exploring an email correspondence between former British MP George Galloway and Buthaina Shaaban, one of Assad's closest advisers.

The emails, dated 2010, relate to a request from Galloway for Syrian assistance with the Gaza flotilla. In one message to Shaaban, Galloway describes Syria as "the last castle of Arab dignity" and asks her to "convey my respect and my admiration to His Excellency the President".

2.32pm: The scale of the bombardment on Homs can be seen and heard in new rooftop footage video footage from the city (via David Goodman of the New York Times.

"God is great" the narrator repeatedly says above what sounds like mortar machine gun and screaming rockets.

The footage purports to show bombardment in the Bab al-Amr area.

.

2.23pm: Some Yemenis are taking their pretend-election quite seriously, despite having only one presidential candidate to choose from. As the official campaign gets under way, they have released a cheery song to encourage voters with a nice tune. Abubakr Al-Shamahi, a British Yemeni who edits the Comment Middle East website, sent us this note about it:

Yemen's one-man election now has a campaign song to encourage Yemenis to come out and vote. After a year of protests against President Saleh's regime an election with only one candidate was not exactly what the mostly youth protesters were looking for, but many have accepted the election and the transitional phase as necessary in the current climate of economic disaster and societal fragmentation.

The song Sawa Nabniha – "Together We Build It" – was made with the aid of the Supreme Committee for Elections & Referendum, and features a group of famous Yemeni singers and celebrities, male and female, and the traditional children's chorus.

It's not hard to see what message they're trying to send. With turnout expected to be very low (15% says journalist Tom Finn), the Yemeni government, and their external partners, are desperate for decent participation that will give legitimacy to the incoming president, Abd-Rabbo Mansur Hadi. The election will already be boycotted by the separatist-inclined Southern Movement and the Houthi rebels in the north.

Hence, there are references to unity throughout the song, including the catchy chorus "We build it together, We protect it together, It gives to us, We give to it, This is Yemen." Ameen Hamim, a popular singer, tells the audience at the end: "21st February is the date to build our new Yemen", reflecting the popular revolutionary chant "The people want to build a new Yemen".

It remains to be seen whether a catchy, positive song will bring out Yemenis to essentially vote for one person on the 21st February. Either way, an end to clashes and the provision of regular electricity, gas and water are more eagerly anticipated in Yemen than an election right now.

2.11pm: The exodus of ambassadors from Damascus continues. The six Gulf Co-operation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) have announced that they are withdrawing their envoys. They are also going a step further than Britain, France and Italy – by expelling the Syrian ambassadors from their own countries.

1.36pm: Russian news sources are reporting some remarks from foreign minister Lavrov following his meeting with President Assad. So far, though, it's all rather bland and lacking in detail:

• Russia is ready to help resolve the Syria crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative.

• Syria expressed interest in continuation and expansion of Arab League mission.

• Assad said he was ready to seek dialogue with all political forces in Syria.

• Assad assured Lavrov Syria is committed to stopping violence by all sides.

Live blog: recap

1.22pm: Here's a summary of the main developments so far today:

Syria

• Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, along with foreign intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov, is in Damascus for talks with President Assad. No details of their discussions have emerged yet.

Italy and France are the latest countries to recall their ambassadors from Syria. Syria was discussed at a meeting of Britain's National Security Council this morning, chaired by prime minister David Cameron. More EU sanctions against the Assad regime appear to be on the way.

The regime's onslaught against Homs continues.

Egypt

Ex-president Hosni Mubarak failed to appear in court for the latest session of his trial in Cairo. Bad weather is being blamed. Apparently poor visibility meant he could not be transported by helicopter.

1.21pm: "The rockets are falling on the city like rain," an activist from Homs told the Guardian today.

The activist, who gave his name only as Sufian, claimed he was talking from a shelter in the Bab al-Amro district of the city.

Speaking via Skype, through our translator Mona Mahmood, he said:

On Tripoli Street, south-east of Bab al-Amr, there are 13 tanks belonging to the regime. To the east of Bab al-Amr there is a hill where the artillery is stationed. From the university compound, close to the area, they have moved out the students. From the high roofs of the university they put all the snipers. The snipers shoot anything that moves, even animals.

The district of Khalidiyeh is also under heavy bombardment. The Syrian army entered the city by tanks from areas loyal to the regime.

This morning five people were killed. Since Friday more than 400 have died, and many more are under rubble.

The soldiers who have defected from the army only have Kalashnikovs. How can you face a battalion with a Kalashnikovs? Tanks have been captured, but they were very exposed, and the regime could easily target them. It is target you cannot hide.

We have a lot of injured people who need urgent treatment. We need to bury the bodies that are piling up in the houses, but we can't go out to bury them.

The humanitarian situation here is very miserable. We have an acute shortage of medication. We don't have any blood for donations, or oxygen. We are calling for help from the whole world. We want help opening the blockade of Homs.

Survivors are suffering an acute shortage of food and medication. No one dares go outside because there so many snipers.

We are using kitchen knives for surgery. All the field hospitals have been targeted. We are relying on domestic medicine cabinets to treat the injured.

We controlled one hospital in Al-Halemei but it was taken by the security forces. Those injured in the hospital have been taken to prisons. The last field hospital we had in Bab al-Amro was bombed yesterday. We lost 10 people when we tired to evacuate the hospital.

British Prime Minister David Cameron (C)

12.47pm: British prime minister David Cameron chaired a meeting of the National Security Council this morning to discuss the situation in Syria.

Earlier, the foreign secretary, William Hague, had briefed the cabinet on developments following Russia and China's veto of a UN resolution at the weekend.

Along with other EU countries, Britain is working towards a new round of sanctions against Syria, expected to be agreed on February 27. These could include a freeze on Syria's central bank assets and a ban on trade in precious metals.

11.43am: A flash from Reuters: France is recalling its ambassador from Syria. [Looks like more EU countries will follow suit.]

11.41am: Police in Germany have arrested two men on allegations they were spying on Syrian opposition groups. Reuters reports:

The Federal Prosecutors' Office said on Tuesday some 70 police officers searched the suspects' apartments and those of six alleged accomplices.

They say a 34-year-old Syrian, identified only as Mahmoud El A, and a 47-year-old German-Lebanese double national, Akram O, are suspected of "having spied over several years on Syrian opposition figures in Germany."

Prosecutors say the arrests and searches are the result of an "extensive" investigation by Germany's domestic intelligence service. No further details were given and the investigation remains ongoing.

11.37am: Italy is the latest country to recall its ambassador from Damascus for consultations.

The announcement comes a day after Britain recalled its ambassador, and the US closed its embassy and withdrew all staff from Syria. However, the Italian foreign ministry says its embassy will remain open to provide assistance to its citizens in the country.

11.27am: Horrific video from a field hospital in Homs, introduced by English-speaking activist Danny Abdel Dayem, appears to show local uprising leader Khalid Abu Salah lying on a stretcher after being injured in the assault on the city [warning: graphic content].

Salah has appeared in a numbered of videos recently. Last week he appeared on a top of a tank captured by military defectors. In December he was also filmed introducing Arab League observers to members of the Free Syrian Army and detailing the atrocities of the security forces to the monitors.

Speaking from a stretcher Salah pledges to continue the revolution, according to dissident blogger Ammar Abdulahamid.

11.24am: Two Lebanese men have been arrested on suspicion of smuggling arms into Syria, the Daily Star reports from Beirut.

The men – identified only by the first names Wael and Bahaa – are accused of supplying opponents of the Syrian regime through the town of Arsal, close to the border in the northern Bekaa valley.

Arsal has been at the centre of controversy recently. In December, the Lebanese defence minister, Fayez Ghosn – who is said to have connections with the Syrian-backed Hezbollah – highlighted the town as a base for weapons smuggling and claimed that al-Qaida members were sheltering there under the pretence of belonging to the Syrian opposition. Residents have denied the accusation.

11.00am: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has made his first public remark since arriving in Syria – though it's not particularly illuminating.

According to the Russian news agency RIA, he told President Assad: "Every leader of every country must be aware of his share of responsibility. You are aware of yours." He also reportedly said: "It is in our interests for Arab peoples to live in peace and agreement."

10.41am: More splits are emerging in the Syrian opposition as rival defected officers claim control of the resistance movement in Syria.

Yesterday, Colonel Riad al-Assad, who has been quoted as the leader of the FSA, accused the opposition Syrian National Council of treachery. Now there appears to be a power struggle for control of the FSA, according to CNN.

Major Mahar Naimi introduced himself as a spokesman for the "Higher Military Council," a newly formed organisation that now claimed to lead armed defectors within Syria.

"This council represents the people fighting in Syria," Naimi said. He added that the council was led by General Mustafa Sheikh, an officer who defected from the Syrian military.

But Naimi's claim was quickly rejected by another defecting officer, Colonel Riad al Assad, who spent much of the last year claiming to lead a "Free Syrian Army" of rebel soldiers from a refugee camp on the Turkish border with Syria.

"This man represents himself," Assad said in reference to Sheikh. "He has nothing to do with the Free Syrian Army ... those people are representing themselves and do not represent the revolution and the Free Syrian Army. They don't represent anybody."

10.39am: Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak failed to attend the latest session of his trial today, the Egypt Independent reports. His usual lawyer, Farid al-Deeb, was also absent.

Mubarak, who is being held in custody at the luxurious International Medical Centre off the Cairo-Ismailia Road, is usually transported to the court by helicopter.

Weather reports from Cairo say visibility is "very poor" today and it appears that his helicopter was unable to fly.

10.34am: Turkey is preparing a new initiative with those countries who oppose Assad government, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today, Reuters reports.

"We are going to start a new initiative with those countries that stand by the people, not the Syrian government. We are preparing this," Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling AK party in Ankara, giving no further details on the initiative.

Britain's foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that UK would intensify its contact with the Syrian opposition, and would back a new Arab-led group, Friends of Syria.

10.10am: There has been much discussion about what Lavrov might say to Assad during their meeting. Twitter user @KarlreMarks (who specialises in "the lighter side of Arab dictators") has this suggestion:

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov

9.50am: Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has now arrived in Syria for talks with President Bashar Assad.

According to the Russian foreign ministry he is accompanied by Mikhail Fradkov, head of the foreign intelligence service.

Syrian state television showed hundreds of people gathering on a main road in Damascus to welcome them. The crowds were waving Syrian, Russian and Hezbollah flags and held up two Russian flags made out of hundreds of red, white and blue balloons.

There have previously been anti-Russian protests by opponents of the Assad regime.

9.31am: The Assad regime has signalled that it plans to continue to attack the central city of Homs.

Numerous accounts from residents, backed by some international journalists now embedded with the Free Syria Army, have reported that the city has been shelled by the Syrian army since Friday.

But a statement from the Syrian ministry of the interior again blamed the violence in the city on "armed terrorist groups".

The statement, published by the state news agency Sana, said:

In spite of the families' appeals in Homs to put an end to the acts of terror, the competent authorities practised the utmost self-restraint and gave terrorists a number of opportunities to return to the road of right ... but they refused and escalated their terror instigated by foreign sides ... all of this pushed the authorities to intervene and deal with them to restore security and stability to Homs.

9.07am: China – which joined Russia in vetoing the UN resolution on Syria at the weekend – says it is seeking a political solution to the violence, AP reports.

Foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China is considering sending envoys to west Asian and north African countries for discussions. It is not clear if that would include a mission to Syria itself.

8.21am: (all times GMT) Welcome to Middle East Live. Fresh from vetoing a UN resolution on Syria, the Russians are due in Damascus today as the regime of president Bashar al-Assad continues to bombard the central city of Homs.

Here's a roundup of the latest developments in Syria and the rest of the region:

Syria

Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, is due to a lead a Russian diplomatic mission to Damascus and hold talks with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, the BBC reports. There has been speculation that Moscow may privately be seeking to persuade Assad to make a "controlled exit", handing over power to trusted senior generals, in a move that would preserve Russia's influence in a post-Assad scenario, according to the Guardian.

Britain and the US recalled their ambassadors to Damascus on Monday in protest at what the British foreign secretary, William Hague, called the "doomed" and "murderous" regime's violent behaviour towards its civilian population. The foreign secretary also signalled the west would now scramble to explore alternative, non-UN routes in an attempt to halt the killing in Syria and prepare for a post-Bashar al-Assad future. As well as continuing support for the Arab League, Hague said the UK would intensify its contact with the Syrian opposition, and would back a new Arab-led group, Friends of Syria.

As the bombardment of Homs continues resident Omar Shakir described the scene on Monday in the Bab al-Amr district:

It was unbelievable in Bab al-Amr today. There was shelling everywhere: machine guns, mortars, everything. I don't know what to say, they were using everything against us. Trust me there was no resistance.

The United Nations has given Assad the green light to kill his people and that is what he is doing. You cannot imagine how brutal it has been here. The rockets are not stopping. They have a strange sound and there is no way of fighting back, or of escaping ... Their plan is to bomb us for five days and then to enter the suburb to finish us off. That is what we believe.

More bitter divisions in the Syria opposition appear to be coming to the surface in the wake of the failed UN resolution. Colonel Adnan al-Asaad, the senior defector who heads the Free Syrian Army, has accused the opposition Syrian National Council of being traitors. He told BBC Arabic that SNC had givn no material or political support to the military effort, according Syria expert Joshua Landis. His comments suggest the end of political agreement between the SNC and FSA brokered in Turkey in December.

Asma al-Assad listens to a speech by her husband, President Bashar al-Assad

"Assad's wife breaks silence" is the dramatic headline across the front page of the Times this morning. Well, she has after a fashion. It's actually "an email sent by an intermediary from her office" and, not surprisingly, she seems to be backing her husband.
British-born Asma Assad, whose family comes from Homs – the city currently being bombarded by the regime's forces – is said to have approved the text of the email which says:

The president is the president of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the first lady supports him in that role ...

The first lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with ... These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence.

Barack Obama has ordered the freezing of Iranian government assets in the US, including transactions by the Iranian Central Bank, in tightened sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme. The new sanctions, which also include the threat of prosecution for foreign financial institutions if they do certain kinds of business directly with Iran, also appeared timed to fit in with measures introduced in other countries, including Britain which has already moved against Iran's banking system by cutting it off from London's financial sector.

There is growing economic panic among the middle classes in Iran, which illustrate and possibly intensify the divisions within the country's political elite, the New York Times reports.

A number of insiders, including members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, have begun openly criticizing Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in recent weeks. One of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's aides indirectly accused Ayatollah Khamenei of needlessly antagonizing the West in ways that pushed down the rial's value, the latest sign of a rift between the president and the supreme leader that is helping to define the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for March 2.

Iran says it has arrested several people it claims were linked to the BBC's Farsi-language service, the Telegraph reports.

A report by the semi-official Mehr news agency said the individuals had done reporting for the BBC and helped the corporation train Iranian journalists but did not name the people detained nor say how many had been arrested. The BBC said in a statement that the report "should be of deep concern to all those who believe in a free and independent media" but added it had "no BBC Persian staff members or stringers working inside Iran."

Yemen

Vice-president Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi is officially launching his campaign for election as President Saleh's successor. Although polling does not take place until 21 February, Hadi (a Saleh appointee) is already certain of victory, since he is the only candidate. Yemen's constitution specifies that there must be at least two candidates. Most of the electoral effort is expected to focus on persuading people that it's worth voting, even though the winner is already known.

Egypt

The ruling military council says it is speeding up preparations for a presidential election, Voice of America reports. Nominations will now open on 10 March – a month earlier than planned. At present, the election itself is scheduled for June, though earlier nominations suggest that date may be brought forward too.

One of the leading presidential contenders, Amr Moussa, says in an interview with Reuters that under his leadership Egypt would be a civilian state with an army that enjoys respect but not "a life of its own". Moussa served for many years as Mubarak's foreign minister and later as secretary-general of the Arab League.

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