UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday to press for a political solution to Syria's year-long uprising, but violence raged on with a major army assault on the northwestern city of Idlib.
Syrian state television said there was a "positive atmosphere" at the talks, but did not say if any agreement had been reached to halt bloodshed that has cost thousands of lives. There was no immediate comment from Annan after his meeting with Assad, which lasted about two hours.
"Regime forces have just stormed into Idlib with tanks and heavy shelling is now taking place," said an activist contacted by telephone, the sound of explosions punctuating the call.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 people had been wounded in the shelling, while three soldiers were killed when rebels attacked armoured vehicles as they tried to advance, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in Cairo earlier in the day, told the Arab League his country was "not protecting any regime", but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone. He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow's stance.
Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, whose country has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough.
Syrian leaders must be held to account, he declared. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said shortcomings in the UN Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.
International rifts have paralysed action on Syria, with Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.
Annan also planned to meet Syrian dissidents before leaving Damascus on Sunday. He has called for a political solution, but the opposition says the time for dialogue is long gone.
"We support any initiative that aims to stop the killings, but we reject it if it is going to give Bashar more time to break the revolution and keep him in power," Melham al-Droubi, a Saudi-based member of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the exiled Syrian National Council, told Reuters by telephone.
"We hope that Annan convinces Bashar to stop the killings, step down and call for a parliamentary election," he said, expressing scepticism that Assad would respond positively.
Annan's trip to Damascus followed a violent day in which activists said Assad's forces killed at least 72 people as they bombarded parts of the rebellious city of Homs and sought to deter demonstrators and crush insurgents elsewhere.
Decisive victory has eluded both sides in an increasingly deadly struggle that began as a mainly peaceful protest movement a year ago and now appears to be sliding into civil war.
The United Nations estimates that Syrian security forces have killed well over 7,500 people. Syria said in December that "terrorists" had killed more than 2,000 soldiers and police.
Russia, one of Syria's few foreign friends and its main arms supplier, could play a pivotal role in any negotiated solution.
"If (Annan) can persuade Russia to back a transitional plan, the regime would be confronted with the choice of either agreeing to negotiate in good faith or facing near-total isolation through loss of a key ally," the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a paper this week.
Annan had discussed his mission on Friday in a call with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the head of the Cairo-based Arab League, Nabil Elaraby. "I have very strongly urged Kofi Annan to ensure that there must be an immediate ceasefire," Ban told reporters in New York after the call. After a ceasefire, he said, "inclusive political solutions" should be found through dialogue.
Chinese and Russian reluctance to approve any UN resolution on Syria stems partly from their fear that it could be used to justify a Libya-style military intervention, although Western powers deny any intention to go to war again in Syria. A Russian diplomat said this week Assad was battling al-Qaeda-backed militants, including 15,000 foreign fighters who would seize cities if Syrian troops withdrew.
The Syrian opposition denies any al-Qaeda role in the uprising, but Islamists are among rebels who have taken up arms against Assad under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Qatar's Sheikh Hamad chided Russia for accepting the Syrian government's portrayal of insurgents as armed gangs.
"There are no armed gangs, the systematic killing came from the Syrian government side for many months. After that the people were forced to defend themselves so the regime labelled them armed gangs," he told the Arab League meeting.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lavrov, her Russian counterpart, will meet in New York on Monday on the sidelines of a special UN Security Council ministerial meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be a central topic.
— Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Shaimaa Fayed, Ayman Samir and Yasmine Saleh in Cairo, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations