WORLD NEWS TOMORROW– International talks on a way to resolve the increasingly bloody conflict in Syria opened in Geneva on Saturday with foreign powers in dispute over the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Kofi Annan, the former UN chief who is special international envoy on Syria, has been hoping for consensus on a

plan for a unity government that, by excluding from the leadership figures deemed too divisive, would effectively mean

Assad stepping down.

However, Moscow, a long-time ally of the Syrian strongman and an opponent in principle of what it sees as foreign meddling in domestic sovereignty, has voiced objections to any solution imposed on Syria from outside.

The United States and its European and Arab allies see no way ahead while power remains in the hands of Dr Assad.

The UN estimates at least 10,000 people have been killed as Dr Assad’s forces have tried to suppress the uprising against him.

“It has always been our view that a stable future for Syria, a stable political process means Assad leaving power as part of an agreement on transitional process,” British Foreign Minister William Hague said in Geneva.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said nothing to reporters at the talks. He and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Russia met in St.Petersburg, Russia, last night but a US official said differences with Moscow over the conflict remained.

“Our Western partners want themselves to decide the outcome of the political process in Syria although it is the job for the Syrians,” Mr Lavrov’s Deputy Gennady Gatilov said in Russia prior to the Geneva meeting.

Ms Clinton offered no further insights as she arrived for the talks. But Britain’s Mr Hague made clear he expected a day of hard bargaining.

“There is an opportunity for the international community to be much stronger and act more robustly but we can only do it with the agreement of Russia and China,” he said.

The foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain – are attending Saturday’s talks.

Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby are also taking part.

However, Iran, Syria’s closest regional ally, and Saudi Arabia, a foe of both Damascus and Tehran and leading backer of the rebel forces opposing Assad, are not represented. Nor is anyone from the Syrian government or opposition.

Meanwhile, Syrian forces fired mortar bombs at major cities today killing 16 people, activists said.

Live stream video footage posted by opposition activists in the eastern desert city of Deir al-Zor showed smoke rising from apartment blocks as continuous explosions rang out.Activists also reported shelling in Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that government shelling and heavy clashes between the army and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army in opposition strongholds have killed 16 people so far today.

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