Middle East

Syria crisis: China sends senior envoy

Three Syrian army tanks on a boulevard at the entrance to Baba Amr in Homs
Image caption Syrian army tanks at the entrance to the Baba Amr neighbourhood in Homs

China says it is sending a senior envoy to Syria in a bid to find a peaceful resolution to the country's crisis.

Deputy Foreign Minister Zhai Jun will go to the capital, Damascus, on Friday.

China was widely criticised for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution urging Syria's leader to step down.

The UN General Assembly is to vote later on an Arab-sponsored resolution condemning Syria's government. Human rights groups say some 7,000 civilians have been killed there since March.

The resolution also backs an Arab League plan calling for President Bashar al-Assad to hand power to his vice-president.

The measure cannot be vetoed in the assembly, but the resolution would be non-binding.

Ahead of the vote, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Syrian authorities to stop killing civilians, and said crimes against humanity might be taking place in the country.

"We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost a certain crimes against humanity," he told reporters during a visit to Austria, where he was attending an international conference on drug trafficking in Afghanistan.

Mr Ban said it was "regrettable" that the previous resolution put before the UN Security Council had been vetoed by China and Russia, but that the lack of agreement "does not give the government licence to continue this assault on its own people".

French and Russian foreign ministers Alain Juppe and Sergei Lavrov were also at the Vienna conference and held talks on their sidelines, with Mr Juppe hoping to convince his Russian counterpart to back the latest measures against Syria.

Russia, like China, has opposed what it sees as forced regime change in Syria, and has raised concerns about the possibility of military involvement.

Mr Juppe said it was "perfectly clear in this resolution that there is no military option" but that he had told Russia accepting the status quo was not an option.

He also dismissed Syrian plans to hold a referendum on a new draft constitution as "a farce".

"How can you propose a referendum on the 26 February while at the same time continuing to attack your own innocent people in some Syrian towns?" he said.

Mr Lavrov said he had received no new proposals from France in their meeting, but that Mr Juppe had told him France was thinking about a new resolution focused on humanitarian aid.

'Heavyweight diplomacy'

In Beijing, Mr Zhai said that China did not approve of armed intervention or forcing so-called "regime change" in Syria.

In an interview posted on the Chinese foreign ministry website, he condemned violence against civilians and called for the government to respect the people's "legitimate" desire for reform.

He also said sanctions or the threat of sanctions were "not conducive to the appropriate resolution of this issue".

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman would not say if Mr Zhai would also meet Syrian opposition representatives during the two-day visit.

"I believe the message of this visit is that China hopes for a peaceful and proper resolution of the Syrian situation, and that the Chinese side will play a constructive role in the mediation," spokesman Liu Weimin said.

Last week, Mr Zhai met a Syrian opposition delegation in Beijing.

In Syria itself, government forces are reported to have launched a new attack on the town of Deraa in the south of the country, where the rebellion first started in March last year.

There are also reports of violence on the eastern border with Iraq, and in Kfar Nabuda in the central Hama province, where a number of rebel soldiers are reported to have been killed, along with several civilians.

Activists say at least 40 people were killed across the country on Thursday.

There are also reports of more shelling by government forces in Homs, which has along with Hama been hit by major government offensives.

In an interview with the BBC, Prince Hassan of Jordan said there was a danger of Syria "subdividing" along its various ethnic and religious lines, with each group "afraid for their own future".

He called for "heavyweight diplomacy" to draw attention to the opposition within Syria, and said "a conversation has to be held" between the Syrian authorities and all opposition groups.