NEW: Information Ministry warns journalists against entering the country illegally
No significant deterioration in support for al-Assad, U.S. intelligence officials say
The U.N.'s Valerie Amos submits an aid proposal to Syria
Syrian news talks of "terrorists" using Israeli-made weapons
Kofi Annan, the joint special envoy to Syria for the United Nations and the Arab League, will meet Saturday in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “to seek an urgent end to all violence and human rights violations and to initiate efforts to promote a peaceful solution” to the violence that has wracked the country for nearly a year, his spokesman said Friday.
Annan will meet with the president Saturday morning and with other groups later in the day, said Ahmad Fawzi, the spokesman for Annan, who is a former secretary-general to the United Nations. Those others may include opposition, civil society and women’s groups, he said.
Annan will then overnight in Damascus to see if he can get a response Sunday, Fawzi said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that in a telephone call Friday, he urged Annan “to ensure that there must be an immediate cease-fire” followed by “an inclusive political solution.” Ban told reporters that he also asked his predecessor to facilitate humanitarian assistance and access.
During Annan’s meetings in Damascus over the weekend, “he will be engaging broadly with the government officials, civil society and humanitarian community,” Ban said. After departing Damascus on Sunday, Annan will meet with opposition leaders in the region, Ban added.
In an interview with CNN, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said Annan will “try to broker a swift transition in which ultimately Assad steps aside and the people of Syria are able to choose an interim government that’s representative and leads to elections. That’s ultimately what his mission is about as well as trying to stop the fighting right away and ensure that humanitarian access is granted.”
She said the pressure on al-Assad has been growing as international economic sanctions have taken effect. “We see their currency crashing, we see businesses having real difficulty thriving so the noose around his neck is tightening.”
Rice added that she wants the situation to be resolved peacefully, “to the extent that that remains still a viable outcome.”
The announcement of Annan’s planned meeting with al-Assad came as the United Nations sought to ease Syria’s humanitarian crisis, with a top official proposing an aid relief plan for civilians devastated by fighting.
Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, said she had submitted a proposal to Syria for “unhindered” aid-worker access and asked the government to respond urgently.
Her two-day visit to Syria focused on urging “all parties to agree on arrangements for humanitarian organizations to reach people in areas affected by fighting and violence,” Amos said in a statement.
She visited displaced Syrians on the Turkish side of the border and met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem and other government officials in Damascus. “We have agreed on a joint preliminary humanitarian assessment mission to areas where people urgently need assistance,” she said of her talks with al-Moallem.
“While this is a necessary first step, it remains essential that a robust and regular arrangement be put in place, which allows humanitarian organizations unhindered access to evacuate the wounded and deliver desperately needed supplies. A proposal has been submitted to the government of Syria and I ask them to consider this matter with the utmost urgency.”
Amos told reporters that the Syrian government “asked for more time to look at the agreement that I put to them.”
Arab League observers surveyed the crisis in Syrian cities for weeks before ending their monitoring mission in late January because of escalating violence. The mission started in December to observe how the government was complying with a league initiative to end violence.
Amos visited Homs and parts of the Baba Amr neighborhood – the anti-government bastion that endured weeks of government pounding.
“I was horrified by the destruction I saw,” she said. “Almost all the buildings had been destroyed and there were hardly any people left there. I am extremely concerned as to the whereabouts of the people who have been displaced from Baba Amr.”
Also Friday, the opposition Syrian National Council praised the announcement on Thursday of the formation of the Syrian Businessmen Council. “This alliance not only indicates a genuine will to overthrow the regime, but presents a solid commitment by the business community to rebuild Syria’s economy and sustain a transition to a new Syria,” it said in a statement.
The council said the SBC includes business leaders and economists, inside Syria and abroad, who have the expertise to rebuild Syria. “Economic support will be channeled in support of the Syrian people and their interests, and to assure other nations’ investments in the future Syria,” it said.
In its statement, the SNC called on public-sector employees, especially those in key governmental positions, to defect.
But senior U.S. intelligence officials said Friday that they see no signs of significant deterioration of support for al-Assad by his inner circle.
The officials, who would speak only on the condition that their names not be used, said that to date, the defections have been of lower-level officials and those in the military. None of those defections, including the group of military officers who are reported to have defected this week, is close enough to al-Assad to truly make a difference, the senior intelligence officials said.
The officials, noting that fuel and food prices are significantly higher and unemployment has nearly doubled since 2010, said that Syria’s crumbling economy could be the president’s Achilles’ heel.
U.S. officials have said that the opposition is fragmented, with many devoted to defending just their neighborhoods.
The anti-government uprising in Syria erupted last year during the height of the Arab Spring, the pro-democratic, grassroots outpourings in the Middle East and North Africa. The Syrian government reacted fiercely to demonstrations from people with a variety of grievances. The violent clampdown on protests, however, spurred more unrest across the nation.
World leaders and humanitarian organizations have condemned Syria’s offensive against protesters, but they have not been able to stop the violence. The United Nations says more than 7,500 have died since mid-March, and at least one activist group says more than 9,000 people have been killed.
On Friday, thousands took to the streets as part of weekly anti-government protests, which have been routinely targeted by security forces.
At least 85 people were killed in Syria on Friday, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said. The toll includes two women and 10 children, 33 people who were killed in Idlib and 26 people in Homs, the LCC said. Other deaths were reported in Damascus, Daraa, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo.
Videos posted Friday on YouTube from Homs purported to show 30 Syrian tanks moving toward the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Asheera, which the opposition says has been repeatedly shelled in recent days. Syrian forces were storming villages in the provinces of Hama and Idlib amid heavy gunfire to chase down military defectors, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition rights group.
Al-Assad’s government said security forces in those provinces were targeting “terrorists,” who were accused of using Israeli-made weapons to kill civilians, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency said. Authorities seized weapons smuggled from Turkey into the Syrian countryside, the news outlet said.
CNN cannot independently confirm opposition or government reports of casualties or attacks from within Syria because the government has severely restricted the access of international journalists.
Syria’s Information Ministry said Friday it has given permission to more than 365 Arab and foreign media outlets to operate in the country over the past year. It added that it “will take the necessary legal steps” against any reporters who enter the country without government approval.
“The ministry said that journalists, some correspondents, especially from satellite channels known for their hostility towards Syria, are accompanying terrorists, promoting their crimes and fabricating baseless news, all of which is considered to be complicity in terrorism against all Syrians and makes these individuals and their establishments liable for legal prosecution,” SANA said.
Meanwhile, China announced it is sending an envoy to the Middle East and Europe to push for a “fair solution” in Syria. This comes after China unveiled a peace plan calling for dialogue between al-Assad and the opposition.
Assistant Foreign Minister Zhang Ming will begin a four-day trip Saturday to meet with government officials in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said Friday, according to the Xinhua news agency.
“Zhang’s visit is intended to further strengthen communication and negotiation with relevant parties on a political resolution for the Syrian issue,” Liu said.
Russia and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution last month that called for al-Assad to transfer power, saying they were opposed to military intervention.
The vetoes thwarted Arab and Western efforts to approve tough action against Syria in the Security Council.
CNN’s Amir Ahmed, Barbara Starr, Hamdi Alkhshali, Chelsea J. Carter, Salma Abdelaziz, Nada Husseini and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.