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U.N. Security Council talks Syria peace as deaths mount

By the CNN Wire Staff
February 2, 2012 -- Updated 0154 GMT (0954 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Some optimistic as private discussions over draft resolution wrap up
  • Russian ambassador: "I think we have a much better understanding of what needs to be done"
  • Britain's ambassador says a vote may be held "in the next few days"

United Nations (CNN) -- Security Council members ended an afternoon of private discussions Wednesday about a draft resolution on Syria still riven by major differences but expressing optimism that an agreement could be reached, participants said.

"I think we have a much better understanding of what needs to be done for us to reach a consensus," said Vitaly Churkin, Russian ambassador to the world body.

"Clearly, there is a desire to get a text that can be adopted in the next few days," said Mark Lyall Grant, Britain's ambassador. "But there's a lot of difficult issues and we're not there yet." He said that negotiations will continue Thursday morning.

The British delegation said it hoped for a vote this week; the U.S. delegation said it was not a matter of weeks before a vote could be held; and the French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was quoted in Paris as saying he hoped for a vote next week.

The Moroccan delegation, which submitted the draft, is now working on an edited version of it, Colombian Ambassador Nestor Osorio told reporters. Discussions Wednesday included whether to support an Arab League plan that calls on Syria to form a unity government within two months but stops short of supporting military intervention or economic sanctions, he said.

"We have more work to do," said U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice. "But I think people are in the spirit of rolling up their sleeves and trying to get to work in a serious manner."

The draft calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to transfer power to his vice president. Al-Assad has faced growing international pressure to stop a bloody crackdown on dissidents seeking his ouster and democratic elections.

Arab and Western diplomats voiced their support for the draft resolution, but representatives from Russia and China -- two of the five Security Council members that have veto power -- have slammed it as meddlesome.

More effective than the resolution, Russia and China said, would be the fostering of dialogue within the country.

But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was unsympathetic.

"The Syrian people themselves are the ones who are crying out for peace and justice, for dignity, for their rights, for a better future," she said in Washington. "And every member of the council has to make a decision: Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the Syrian people? Are you on the side of the Arab League? Are you on the side of the people in the Middle East and North Africa who have during this past year spoken out courageously and often for their rights? Or are you on the side of brutal, dictatorial regime?

"Each country will have to be mulling that over and making a decision. But certainly, from my perspective, as members of the Security Council charged with the responsibility of trying to keep international peace and security, it is absolutely imperative that we all be on the right side of history, and that means standing with the Arab League and standing with the people of Syria."

One Western diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter, said, "People who say that the Security Council should not do regime change should also say that the Security Council does not have to do regime preservation."

Churkin was quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti on Wednesday as saying that Russia would not support any arms embargo on Syria, a major weapons client.

"How can we say that we will tear up all of our contracts, sever all our ties with Syria?" he asked, according to the news agency. "We will not agree to any embargo, not even so much as a hint of an embargo."

Churkin was quoted by the Russian news agency Interfax as saying Moscow would welcome the Security Council's efforts to achieve consensus if the "red lines" Russia has set out are taken into account.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, speaking alongside Israeli President Shimon Peres after talks in Jerusalem on Wednesday, said the members of the Security Council "fully understand the seriousness and urgency of these issues; I sincerely hope that they will be able to take necessary action."

Peres said he hoped the Security Council would "take the proper vote" and pass the resolution.

"When I see people being murdered in broad daylight, in the middle of the street -- it's a human tragedy. And I pay my respect to the Arab League that has decided to intervene and to stop this bloodshed," he said. "I'm speaking as a human being, not as an Israeli."

Russia has said it is concerned about the prospect of a Syrian civil war and does not want al-Assad pushed from power. It has proposed its own draft resolution that assigns equal blame for the violence on al-Assad and the opposition.

But Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, said "the crisis started with absolutely peaceful demonstrations."

He added, "The government killing machine continues effectively unabated."

In October, Russia and China issued a rare double-veto of a resolution that lacked sanctions but would have condemned the violence in Syria. This latest draft also lacks sanctions, but it is tougher than the October version, which said nothing about a transfer of power.

Rights group Amnesty International urged Russia on Wednesday to rethink its opposition to the latest draft.

"Russia's threats to abort a binding U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria for the second time are utterly irresponsible. Russia bears a heavy responsibility for allowing the brutal crackdown on legitimate dissent in Syria to continue unchecked," said Jose Luis Diaz, Amnesty International's representative to the United Nations.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby called for free elections and a multiparty system. "Do not let the Syrian people down in its plight," he said.

Meanwhile, Syria's envoy to the United Nations said the country is the victim of a campaign to distort facts. The Arab League, he said, is interfering with Syrian affairs and has ignored reports from observers inside the country.

"Syria is going through decisive challenges in its history," Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari said. "We want this stage to be through the will of our people, not through the will of anyone else."

The Arab League "is not speaking on behalf of all Arabs right now. Without Syria, there is no Arab League," he said.

The Security Council talks came as at least 70 people were killed across Syria on Wednesday, opposition activists said. The number killed in Wadi Barada, in the Damascus suburbs, climbed to 36, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition group that organizes and documents demonstrations.

The other deaths occurred elsewhere in the region around Damascus and in Homs, where 15 people were killed, Daraa, Idlib and Qamishli, the Local Coordination Committees said.

The latest casualties include six army defectors who were killed during clashes with government forces in the Damascus suburbs, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another opposition activist group.

Abu Omar, a resident of Wadi Barada, said that Tuesday night was the first time government forces had targeted the town, despite protests going on there since early last year.

He said that about 700 soldiers had come to the town and begun shooting, leading to two civilian deaths. Clashes then broke out between the rebel Free Syrian Army and government forces, he said.

After that, "the military started shelling randomly on the villages and houses. They got snipers shooting at people, and the military troops are located on the hills around the area."

At least 7,100 people -- including 461 children -- have died since the start of the Syrian anti-government uprising in March, the Local Coordination Committees said Tuesday.

The United Nations estimated in December that more than 5,000 people have died since March, though it has also said it has been unable to update that figure because of the situation on the ground.

CNN cannot independently confirm opposition or government reports from Syria because access to the country is limited.

CNN's Yousuf Basil, Stefan Simons, Mick Krever, Elise Labott, Kevin Flower, Brian Walker, Hamdi Alkhshali, Arwa Damon, Richard Roth, Jill Dougherty and Josh Levs contributed to this report.

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