The former head of the United Nations will meet with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to end the ongoing violence in the Middle Eastern country.
The U.N. said Friday that former secretary-general Kofi Annan will meet the Syrian leader Saturday during a stop in Damascus. Annan is going to the meeting as the new U.N.-Arab League envoy to Syria. He has been calling for a political solution to the crisis, warning attempts to arm rebel forces will only make the situation worse.
Word of the high-level meeting comes just hours after the U.N.'s top humanitarian official said Syria is refusing "unhindered" access for humanitarian aid.
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos told reporters in Ankara on Friday that Syrian officials "asked for more time" to consider a deal that would allow the U.N. to help the victims of the ongoing government crackdown on dissent. She said Syrian officials agreed to a "limited assessment exercise" to get some information about the plight of those affected by the violence.
Amos spoke after touring refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border, where at least 11,000 Syrians have sought refuge in the nearly year-long uprising.
Homs is killing ground
Syrian opposition groups said Friday at least 31 people died as thousands took to the streets across the country to rally against the Assad government. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of the deaths occurred in Homs, the city that has been a focus of the government crackdown.
Amos told reporters that she was devastated by what she saw during her recent visit to the Baba Amr district of Homs, which has seen some of the most brutal fighting. She said, "there are no people left, those that I saw were claiming their possessions, and it is important to know what has happened to those people."
Despite the continued bloodshed, China is voicing support for Annan's mission, saying it hopes that "impartial mediation" can result in peace talks. China, along with Russia, has twice vetoed U.N. Security Council proposals that would have put pressure on Assad to end the conflict.
Underscoring the divide on Syria, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Friday that Washington is "not overly optimistic" world powers will ever agree on a Security Council resolution condemning Syria's violent crackdown.
However, some foreign diplomats say the end of the Assad government may be in sight. Syria's deputy oil minister announced Thursday that he was joining the opposition.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said Friday that "the collapse of the Assad regime has started and will continue. No country can be led with atrocity and oppression."
His comments came as Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency reported high-ranking military officers had defected and arrived in Turkey. Anatolia quoted officials as saying at least two Syrian generals have crossed into Turkey since Thursday, along with several other officers and refugees.
Cracks appear in Assad regime
A White House spokesman said that, if true, "those defections are a courageous step by members of the regime, demonstrating their loyalty to and support for the Syrian people and their aspirations." He said the defections would be a "sign that there are significant cracks in the Assad regime."
There are also new calls to help arm the Syrian opposition.
U.S. Senator John McCain accused Russia and Iran of fueling the bloodshed by providing the Syrian military with weapons. He told Alhurra TV on Thursday that the United States and other countries should use air power to take out the military's defenses.
The U.N. estimates that Syrian forces have killed more than 7,500 people since the anti-Assad uprising began a year ago. The government blames "terrorists" for the unrest, saying that 2,000 of its security forces have been killed in the conflict.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.