Sarkozy likens Syria's Assad to a 'murderer'

ANGELA CHARLTON Associated Press Published:

PARIS (AP) -- French President Nicolas Sarkozy likened Syrian leader Bashar Assad to a "murderer" while Russia said it was arming his regime, reflecting the ongoing divisions in the international community over how to bring the violence in Syria to an end.

The divisions over Syria were further evident with the news that Italy was joining a string of countries closing their embassies in Syria to protest the bloodshed.

Efforts by Kofi Annan, the international envoy charged with trying to help end the violence in Syria, have borne little and the former United Nations Secretary-General was seeking clarification from the Syrian authorities over their response to his proposals, his spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said Wednesday.

"Given the grave and tragic situation on the ground, everyone must realize that time is of the essence," Fawzi said. "As he said in the region, this crisis cannot be allowed to drag on."

Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, visited Syria over the weekend and had two meetings with President Bashar Assad. U.N. diplomats said Annan will brief the Security Council by videoconference on Friday morning.

Fawzi gave no details on the proposals or response, but in Washington, U.S. officials said the Syrian reply to Annan was unacceptable, notably because it does not include any reference to the demands of the Arab League for a political transition that would see Assad step down.

One U.S. official familiar with the matter said it was "not positive but not unexpected either."

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Annan has not publicly released the response, said it did not mention steps toward a transition, an end to government attacks on the opposition or the withdrawal of troops from civilian areas.

The French leader, whose country was Syria's one-time colonial ruler, urged humanitarian corridors to allow refugees out and aid into the country.

"We must obtain humanitarian corridors, and for that we must unblock the Russian veto and Chinese veto" at the U.N. Security Council, Sarkozy told Europe-1 radio.

U.N. Security Council members are meeting to decide what to do next to try to stop the violence.

The council has been considering a new resolution on Syria. Russia and China have vetoed two previous resolutions, saying they were unbalanced and demanded an end to government attacks only, not the opposition.

"The French army can in no way intervene" in Syria without U.N. backing, Sarkozy said. France has been active in efforts to end fighting in Syria, and was a leading player in the U.N.-mandated, NATO-led airstrike campaign in Libya.

Sarkozy reached out to both Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi earlier in his tenure to try get them to cooperate with the international community. But after both leaders responded to uprisings last year with military repression of protesters, Sarkozy abandoned his support for them.

The U.N. estimates that more than 7,500 people have been killed since the anti-Assad struggle started in Syria a year ago inspired by Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere. As Assad's forces used deadly force to stop the unrest, protests spread and some Syrians took up arms.

Assad "is today behaving like a murderer and will have to answer for himself at the International Criminal Court," Sarkozy said.

International envoy Kofi Annan visited Syria over the weekend and was in Turkey on Tuesday to try to find a way to end the violence, but both the Syrian government and the opposition are refusing to talk to one another.

Italy said Wednesday it has closed its embassy in Syria and recalled its staff in reaction to continued crackdown on civilians by government troops. The Foreign Ministry reaffirmed "the strongest condemnation of the unacceptable violence by the Syrian regime against its own citizen."

Britain, Canada, France, Spain and the United States have each announced the closure of their embassies to protest the crackdown.

Sarkozy played down concerns about violence in Libya and the country's direction after Gadhafi's ouster.

"A country three times larger than France with 6 million residents, you have to leave it a bit of time. You cannot pass from dictatorship to democracy in 6 months," he said.

___

Matthew Lee in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.