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U.N. envoy meets with Syrian president as deaths mount

By Amir Ahmed and Holly Yan, CNN
updated 9:54 PM EST, Mon December 24, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 15 die in airstrikes on a bakery and hospital in Homs province, opposition says
  • Monday's death toll reaches 156, including 21 women, across Syria, opposition group says
  • Government and rebel forces trade blame for an earlier attack on a bakery in Western Syria
  • Syrian forces have been targeting more gatherings of people recently, an activist says

(CNN) -- With the carnage in Syria showing no sign of abating, U.N. peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Monday with Syria's president in hopes of making headway in ending the country's civil war.

"We have exchanged opinions about the possible steps that can be taken in the future," Brahimi told reporters after meeting with President Bashar al-Assad.

Read more: Syria firing more Scud missiles, NATO says

"The president spoke about his view regarding this situation. I also talked about the meetings I had abroad in several cities with various officials in the region and outside of the region. I also talked about what steps which I see appropriate to be taken to help the Syrian people to get out of this crisis," he said.

In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war: In this photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center, Syrian men help survivors out of a building in Aleppo after it was bombed, allegedly by a Syrian regime warplane on Saturday, February 8. The United Nations estimates more than 100,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. Click through to see the most compelling images taken during the conflict, which is now a civil war:
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"The situation in Syria remains worrying. We hope that all parties embrace the solution which the Syrian people want and aspire to have."

Monday's was the latest in several visits Brahimi has made to Damascus since August, when he was appointed joint U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria.

Read more: Russia: Syria consolidates its chemical weapons

In October, he brokered a cease-fire between the government and rebels, but it disintegrated within hours when heavy fighting erupted once again.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry on Monday denied media rumors that Moscow was sending commando units, air defense systems operators and military equipment to Syria, its longtime ally.

"No decisions to send commandos on board Russian warships (to Syria) have been made," Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov told reporters in Moscow, according to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

He said Russia had not sent air defense systems operators to Syria either. "It's all nonsense ... and media speculation," Antonov said.

Two landing ships that form part of Russia's Black Sea Fleet -- the Azov and the Nikolai Filchenkov -- were en route from Novorossiysk to the Syrian port of Tartus, where the Russian Navy has a maintenance base, RIA Novosti reported. The ships were carrying naval infantry units for protection during the voyage, it said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Monday that Russia has a plan to evacuate Russian citizens from Syria, if necessary, the news agency reported.

Opposition activists say more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in the past two months.

The bloodshed continued on Monday with at least 156 people, including 21 children, killed across the country, the opposition Local Coordination Committees of Syria said.

Read more: Opposition: More than 100 Syrians killed in bakery attack

The dead include 15 killed in Talbiseh, a city in Homs province, by airstrikes on a field hospital and bakery, according to the opposition group.

Read more: Syrian rebels gaining ground in Aleppo, opposition says

A day earlier, scores of people were killed when warplanes bombed a bakery in the western village of Halfaya, opposition activists said Sunday.

An activist who oversaw many of the burials said at least 109 people died. The hospitals could not handle all the wounded, Hassan Al-Rajb said.

Read more: Patriot missiles a warning to Syria's al-Assad

"There were dozens of dead thrown in the street," opposition activist Mahmoud Alawy said. "The residents were shocked and in a state of fear. It was chaotic."

Videos posted on social media showed the purported aftermath of the attack. Many bodies had limbs apparently blown off, and others lay bloody in the streets and in rubble strewn over a sidewalk. Uniformed rebels from the Free Syrian Army and civilians scrambled to pull survivors from the wreckage.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency blamed "armed terrorist groups" for the attack on Halfaya and accused them of having shot footage of the incident and blamed the government for the attack.

Read more: Syrian regime approaching collapse, NATO chief says

Halfaya had lacked the ingredients for bread for about a week until Saturday, when an aid group delivered provisions, Alawy said. Hundreds of people lined up at the bakery Sunday.

Alawy said the government has been shelling gatherings of people in recent days, since the Free Syrian Army liberated the town from Syrian government forces.

British diplomat Alistair Burt said Monday he was "appalled" by what, if verified, "would be the most recent in a long line of human rights violations and abuses committed by the Syrian regime." Italy's foreign ministry issued its own statement saying "these horrific images offend human sensibilities and our concept of civilization."

Many Syrians face shortages of food and other necessities as winter sets in. The United Nations estimates that more than 2.5 million people need humanitarian assistance.

To address this crisis, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister and government spokesman Bulent Arinc said the Turkish Council of Ministers would donate 37,000 tons of flour to Syria, effective immediately, the semi-official Turkish news agency Anadolu Agency reported.

Meanwhile, dissidents in the city of Homs said six rebel fighters died Sunday night after inhaling a white gas that had no smell, according to Rami Abdulrahman, director of the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"Gas was released and spread in the area after members of the regime forces threw canister bombs," Abdulrahman said Monday. "... The activists said that everyone who (inhaled) the gas felt severe headaches and some had seizures."

The observatory called for the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate the case.

CNN cannot independently confirm government or opposition reports from Syria, as the government has restricted access by journalists.

CNN's Salma Abdelaziz, Hamdi Alkhshali and Samira Said contributed to this report.

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