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Turkey presses Syria to end crackdown
BEIRUT -- President Bashar Assad discussed "concrete steps" to end the violent crackdown on protesters during six hours of talks Tuesday with Turkey's foreign minister, even as the Syrian military unleashed a fresh assault on dissent that activists said killed more than 20 people.
Speaking to reporters on his return to Turkey, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the talks were cordial but did not say what specific steps they had discussed or whether Assad had agreed to consider them.
"We discussed ways to prevent confrontation between the army and the people and tensions like those in Hama in the most open and clear way," Davutoglu said, referring to the Syrian city that has become a flashpoint in the 5-month-old uprising against Assad's autocratic rule.
"The coming days will be important to see if the expectations are being met. We hope that internal peace and calm is achieved and steps for reform are taken," Davutoglu added.
The Syrian regime has shown no signs of scaling back its crackdown despite increasing diplomatic isolation. Envoys from India, Brazil and South Africa were expected to meet with Syrian officials in Damascus today, part of a broad diplomatic push to stop the killings.
Syria's state-run news agency reported Assad told Davutoglu the government will be relentless in its pursuit of "terrorist groups" to safeguard stability and security in the country. Syrian authorities blame the unrest on extremist and terrorist groups seeking to destabilize the country, even though most of the people killed are unarmed, peaceful protesters.
SANA said Assad also pledged to press ahead with reforms. But promises reform of have rung hollow, especially since they have been coupled with a campaign that rights groups say has killed about 1,700 people, mostly civilians, since March.
Diplomatic pressure has done little so far to stop Syria's regime, a close ally of Iran that is used to international isolation. But Davutoglu's visit was a significant message because Turkey until recently had close ties to Damascus.
Ankara has become increasingly critical of its neighbor over the crackdown that has sent thousands of Syrian refugees flooding across the border into Turkey.
Syrian troops launched fresh assaults on several restive cities and town, including in Idlib province near the Turkish border.
Two prominent Syrian activist groups said 22 people, including eight children, were killed across the country.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.
A rights activist near the central city of Hama said military operations in the town of Tibet el-Imam just north of the city killed at least five children, four of them from the same family.
"They were playing in the fields when they were struck by gunfire," said the activist, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Syria has blocked nearly all outside witnesses to the violence by banning foreign media. It also has restricted local coverage that strays from the party line that the regime is fighting thugs and religious extremists who are acting out a foreign conspiracy.
"The situation in Syria is heading to the point of no return," Egypt's Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr said in Cairo, urging the Syrian government to carry out nationwide reforms and end the crackdown.