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Syrians defiant as world powers plan talks

Smoke rises after an explosion Thursday near the Palace of Justice in central Damascus, Syria.

Story highlights

  • There were 664 demonstrations Friday in Syria, opposition group says
  • U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with her Russian counterpart
  • Deir Ezzor has been pummeled for eight consecutive days, opposition group says
  • U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he hopes Geneva meeting marks a "turning point"

International envoy Kofi Annan expressed optimism Friday that the latest talks on the crisis in Syria will yield "an appropriate outcome," despite a failed peace plan and relentless violence in the Middle East nation.

Diplomats prepared for a weekend emergency meeting in Switzerland as grass-roots anger against Bashar al-Assad's regime spread across Syria and protesters praised Free Syrian Army rebels with shouts of "FSA forever!"

"We're confident that God's victory is near," marchers chanted Friday in nationwide demonstrations against the government.

"We will no longer kneel to anyone but God," emboldened protesters shouted near the presidential palace in central Damascus. They lambasted al-Assad's family with cries of "We are coming after you, may God curse your soul."

According to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria opposition group, 664 demonstrations took place Friday in Syria.

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As the protests unfolded, the group urged officers and soldiers to defect, as some have already.

"If you defect in greater numbers and sooner rather than later, you can spare Syria from further tragedies and pain," the Local Coordination Committees said in an appeal to the army. "Syrian young men, defect from the regime's sinking ship, because the new Syria will need you to protect her people and borders."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hopes the meeting in Geneva will mark a "turning point" in diplomatic efforts to end the unrest.

Annan, the U.N. and Arab League special envoy to Syria, invited top diplomats from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, along with envoys from Turkey, the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the meeting "could be an opportunity to press forward with Syria's political transition, should all partners work together on this goal in good faith and with the interest of a better future for Syria in mind."

U.S. officials were working with the opposition in Syria "to ensure that a transition would guarantee fundamental rights as well as those of minorities," he said.

Ahead of the Saturday gathering, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Russian counterpart, seeking to raise pressure to end the crisis in Syria.

Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in St. Petersburg on Friday amid their nations' deep divisions over the crisis. U.S. officials have advocated a political transition in Syria, but Russia opposes foreign intervention in the violence-torn nation. After the meeting, which lasted an hour, they emerged together.

"We are agreeing on most things," Lavrov said; Clinton said nothing.

"There are still areas of difficulty and difference, but, out of respect to Kofi, they agree that we should go to Geneva tomorrow to try to produce a result," said a senior State Department official. "We may get there tomorrow; we may not."

During her meeting with Lavrov, Clinton made the point that the wider region -- including Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Jordan -- faces dangers from the Syrian conflict, the official said. "So it's really incumbent upon the Security Council members and regional states to exercise leadership and do what we can to help end the violence and get to a political transition," the official said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said on its website before the Clinton-Lavrov meeting that Syrians should handle the future of their country by themselves.

"We are seriously concerned about the situation on the ground, the death and suffering of Syrian civilians as a result of continuing armed clashes, attacks and terrorist acts. In this context, the Russian side finds it necessary to coordinate the mechanisms of achieving a cease-fire and synchronized withdrawal of government forces and armed opposition groups from cities and other populated areas under U.N. observer mission control in Syria," the statement said.

"If implemented, these measures would create a favorable atmosphere for the early beginning of a national political dialogue in Syria between the government and all opposition groups through which Syrians themselves would define the agenda and time-frame of the transitional process. We believe that these issues should become the subject of debates at ministerial level in Geneva."

Separately, Amnesty International called Friday for the "establishment of a dedicated human rights monitoring presence on the ground."

Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, said the U.N. observer mission, now suspended, lacked "a human rights component," and that was "a major shortcoming." She also said any plan for peace shouldn't include amnesty for "crimes under international law or gross human rights violations."

"We believe that having teams deployed on the ground with a sole focus of investigating and reporting on abuses -- with a view to eventual prosecution -- can help to deter combatants from committing the kinds of crimes under international law we have so far documented since the beginning of the uprising," she said.

Al-Assad, interviewed Thursday by an Iranian TV station, said the international effort to deal with Libya last year is "not the model to settle" the crisis. He said the only way to deal with the crisis is through a "national model."

Under a U.N. mandate, NATO deployed its forces to protect Libyan civilians from Moammar Gadhafi's forces. The deployment helped rebels topple Gadhafi's regime.

The death count has mounted since March 2011, when a brutal government crackdown on peaceful protests morphed into an anti-regime uprising.

Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. representative to the U.N. Human Rights Council, has said the death toll from the crisis has reached 15,000, according to some estimates. The Local Coordination Committees says the number of deaths has surpassed 14,000, most of them civilians.

On Friday, several explosions hit Damascus neighborhoods, the Local Coordination Committees said. And regime forces killed at least 70 people across Syria, more than 10 of them children, the group said.

The opposition group singled out regime shelling on the city of Deir Ezzor for the past eight days.

CNN cannot independently confirm the reports of casualties or violence because Syria restricts access by international journalists.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said dozens of "terrorist elements" have been killed as security forces continue to track down and arrest them. It also said security forces discovered "prisons" where kidnapped people had been tortured and killed, and found "field hospitals" with stolen medical equipment.

The failure of Annan's six-point peace plan has emboldened opposition groups.

The Syrian National Council, a main political opposition group, said there will be "no dialogue and no partnership" with al-Assad's regime.

Security Council officials said they were to meet with various leaders this week, including the French foreign minister in Paris on Friday and Egyptian officials in Cairo on Sunday. A delegation of the group returned from a meeting with Kurdistan region leaders in Iraq, the political opposition group said.

In its appeal to soldiers, the Local Coordination Committees said al-Assad has betrayed Syria and "to the regime, you are merely an armed shield."

"The weapons you are using were paid for by the Syrian people. These weapons have contributed to severe tragedies and are now lodged in the chests of your fathers, mothers, children and sisters."

Attacks have targeted Damascus and Aleppo in recent months, including bombings in the Syrian capital this week: one at a TV station Wednesday near Damascus and another at a parking lot near the Justice Ministry on Thursday.

Opposition groups have said such attacks are the work of the government, while the regime has blamed the attacks on terrorists.

But rebel groups comprising defectors and locals have emerged and are maturing. Fighting has intensified as groups such as the Free Syrian Army pose a challenge for government security forces.

"Their operations in some locations are improving in efficiency and organization," the U.N. Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic said this week, describing anti-government forces.

"These groups appear to have spread throughout the country, expanding their activities to new areas, and clashing simultaneously with government forces on multiple fronts. Their increasing capacity to access and make use of available weapons has been demonstrated in recent weeks."