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Syrian forces pound protest city of Idlib despite Kofi Annan's visit to Damascus

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Al-Arabiya

By Al Arabiya with agencies

U.N. envoy Kofi Annan met with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Saturday in Damascus during a high-profile international mission to mediate an end to the country's yearlong conflict.

The state-run news agency reported that Assad received Annan on Saturday. There were no further details on the meeting, which is aimed at a ending violence that began with crackdowns on mostly peaceful protests against the authoritarian regime but appears to be transforming into a civil war.

Soon after their meeting in Damascus, the Qatari foreign minister at an Arab ministerial meeting urged Syria's opposition to unite and called for recognition of Syrian National Council (SNC) as the country's representative.

Hours before the scheduled arrival of international peace envoy, Annan, Syrian troops heavily shelled the northwestern protest city of Idlib early Saturday, in an apparent prelude to a ground assault just, a watchdog said.

"It's the heaviest bombardment since troop reinforcements were sent to Idlib earlier this week," the head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP.

"It's the prelude to the launch of a ground offensive."

Annan, former U.N. chief, was headed for crux talks in Damascus on Saturday with the hopes of the world pinned on his bid to prevent a nearly year-old uprising spiraling into all-out civil war.

After another 70 civilians were killed on Friday in a conflict that human rights watchdogs say has cost more than 8,500 lives since March last year, Annan was due to holds talks with President Bashar al-Assad on his first visit since his appointment as international envoy on the conflict.

Emissary of the United Nations and the Arab League, Annan has the support of Damascus allies Beijing and Moscow and his mission has been welcomed by the both the Syrian government and opposition.

Current U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said that Annan would demand an immediate end to the violence and aid agency access to besieged protest cities to evacuate casualties and provide desperately needed relief supplies to civilians trapped by the fighting.

"I very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure there must be an immediate ceasefire," Ban said.

"I also asked him to urge Assad to facilitate humanitarian assistance and access."

Ban said that Annan would seek to encourage dialogue between Assad's government and the opposition but that he would not meet opposition figures inside Syria and would not travel outside Damascus on his two-day visit.

His predecessor would meet Assad, other government officials, "civil society" representatives and aid workers in the Syrian capital, Ban told reporters at U.N. headquarters.

"He will be engaging with opposition leaders outside of Syria," Ban added. "There should be an inclusive political solution."

When he leaves Damascus on Sunday, Annan will travel on to neighboring countries to press his mission to end the bloodshed, the U.N. chief said.

Diplomatic sources said his first port of call would be Turkey, which has taken a very tough line against Assad's regime over its deadly crackdown.

Meanwhile, U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, who visited Homs this week, said Assad's government had agreed to join U.N. agencies in a "limited assessment" of civilian needs in Syria, but had not met her request for unhindered access for aid groups.

Syrian officials had asked for more time, she told a news conference in Ankara after visiting Syrian refugees arriving in growing numbers in border camps in Turkey.

Amos said she was "devastated" at the destruction she saw in Homs and that she wanted to know the fate of civilians who had lived in the city's Baba Amr district, which rebel fighters left on March 1 after a 26-day siege.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

will meet in New York on Monday on the sidelines of a special U.N. Security Council ministerial meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be a central topic.

Others taking part in the council session are French foreign Minister Alain Juppe and British Foreign Secretary William Hague. China will be represented at the ambassadorial level.

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