WASHINGTON Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Friday Syria's government could still make reforms despite mounting political violence that has sparked worldwide condemnation.
Clinton, speaking in an interview with an Italian journalist on a visit to Rome, said the United States had been outspoken about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's political crackdown but that the situation there was "complex."
"There are deep concerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are pushing hard for the government of Syria to live up to its own stated commitment to reforms," Clinton said in remarks released by the State Department.
Clinton said the situation in Syria was "poignant" but rejected comparisons with Libya, where the United States has helped to lead international efforts to support rebels fighting longtime ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
"What I do know is that they have an opportunity still to bring about a reform agenda," Clinton said.
"Nobody believed Gaddafi would do that. People do believe there is a possible path forward with Syria. So we're going to continue joining with all of our allies to keep pressing very hard on that."
Critics have accused the United States of moving too quietly on Syria, where Assad's government has gone on the offensive to maintain his family's four-decade grip on power and crush demonstrators demanding freedom.
Clinton herself was widely criticized in March after she called Assad a reformer, citing the views of congressional leaders who had met with the Syrian leader.
The United States has sought to engage Damascus and loosen its anti-Israel alliances with Iran and militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas. But U.S. officials say they have little direct leverage and have been wary of moving without stronger international support, particularly from Arab countries.
Syrian security forces killed an additional 27 people on Friday, rights campaigners said, prompting the European Union to agree to impose sanctions against up to 14 Syrian officials held responsible for the violence.
Rights campaigners say more than 580 people have been killed since protests broke out in Syria in mid-March. Syrian officials have blamed "armed terrorist groups" for the violence and give a lower death toll, saying half the fatalities have been soldiers and police.
The United States imposed further targeted sanctions against Syrian officials last Friday but left Assad himself off the list. U.S. officials say more sanctions are possible, however, and that the situation is continually being reassessed.
"We continue to press the Syrian government to cease violence and carrying out violence against innocent citizens who are simply demonstrating and trying to state their aspirations for a more democratic future," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Toner said the U.S. ambassador in Damascus, Robert Ford, had brought up the case of a journalist for Al Jazeera who holds joint U.S., Canadian and Iranian nationality and who went missing after arriving in Damascus on Friday.
Al Jazeera has called on Syria to immediately release the journalist, Dorothy Parvaz, saying it was worried about her welfare, security and safety.
"We are aware of her case and obviously concerned about it," Toner told a news briefing, saying the United States was seeking consular access.
"We have pressed our concerns to the Syrian government about missing individuals, as we often do," he said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)