A high-level peace envoy urged Syrian President Bashar Assad to take "concrete steps" to end the turmoil in his nation, the United Nations said Saturday, but a reported offensive against rebels in the country's rugged northwest highlighted the ferocity of the violence almost a year after the country's uprising began.
Former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan met with Assad in Damascus, the Syrian capital, in a bid to head off what U.S. and other officials fear could become a full-fledged civil war in Syria, where protesters and insurgents demanding Assad's ouster have been battling security forces.
The veteran Ghanaian diplomat, representing both the U.N. and the Arab League, faced a daunting task: reaching a deal to curb the violence and jump-start negotiations between two sides that refuse to speak with each other.
Annan expressed "grave concern" during "candid" and "comprehensive" talks with the Syrian president, the U.N. said in a statement.
The special envoy "put forward several proposals to stop the violence and the killing, give access for humanitarian agencies … release detainees, and start an inclusive political dialogue to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the people," the U.N. said
While in Damascus, the U.N. said, Annan also met with opposition leaders and "young activists," as well as with prominent members of the business community.
Annan is expected to meet again with Assad on Sunday before leaving Syria for Doha, Qatar.
Even as Annan and Assad spoke, opposition activists reported that government tanks and artillery were attacking rebel strongholds in the northwest province of Idlib, near the Turkish border.
In Idlib city, the major urban center, the opposition reported that tanks posted on the outskirts were firing into populated areas, especially the Shamali neighborhood, a protest hub. The report could not be verified; both sides in the Syrian uprising have provided misleading versions of events.
"They are trying to do what they did in Baba Amr," said an Idlib opposition leader who identified himself by his nom de guerre, Ahmad Zidan, contacted via the Skype communications system.
He was referring to the bombardment last month of a former rebel enclave in the central city of Homs, which was overrun by government forces March 1 after weeks of shelling, according to the opposition.
At least 29 people were killed and hundreds wounded Saturday in Idlib city and the nearby village of Binnish, Zidan said.
Residents of Idlib city had been expecting the onslaught for days and were taking shelter in basements and mosques, said a Syrian doctor who was in touch with family members there.
Annan's peace plan proposals were said to include a cease-fire, humanitarian aid delivery, a return of troops to their barracks and the start of a dialogue between Assad and the opposition. The chances of accomplishing any of those goals remained unclear.
The government press agency issued a statement from Assad saying dialogue could not succeed "as long as there are armed terrorist groups that are working to spread chaos and destabilize the country."
That would seem to rule out talks with the rebels, whom the Syrian government has repeatedly described as foreign-backed terrorists. Likewise, opposition groups have said that they would not speak with Assad, whom they brand a war criminal.
Annan's mission has the enthusiastic backing of Syria's major international ally, Russia, which last month joined with China in vetoing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have called on Assad to relinquish power.
Russia's defense of Assad has led to strained relations with many nations, including the United States and various Arab countries, where Moscow has been publicly excoriated.
In a bid to improve its regional standing, Russia on Saturday presented a "five-point" Syrian peace plan to the Arab League in Cairo, calling for, among other things, a cease-fire and "unimpeded" delivery of humanitarian aid.
"We are not protecting any regimes," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the sometimes heated Arab League session. "We are protecting international law."
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have called for international arming of Syria's rebels, took issue with Russia's perceived defense of Assad.
Qatar's prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, accused Assad of "systematic genocide" of Syrian civilians, and called for Arab and international troops to be dispatched to Syria.
"We must send a message to the Syrian regime that the world's patience and our patience has run out," he said.
A Times staff writer in Beirut contributed to this report.