BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s foreign minister on Thursday repeated Beijing’s call for the Syrian government to talk with the opposition and take steps to meet the people’s demand for change, but stopped short of offering any new solutions to the ongoing crisis.
Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told envoy Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to President Bashar al-Assad, that China was “extremely worried” by the situation in her country, the ministry said in a statement on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
Yang “called on the Syrian government and the opposition groups to enter into an early dialogue and engagement, open and push forward the political transition process led by the Syrian people, so that the country can leave its current difficult situation as soon as possible”, the ministry said.
“The Syrian government should take practical measures to meet the people’s reasonable demands for change and for the safeguarding of their personal interests.”
Yang “hopes that the Syrian government and the opposition will cooperate with the international community’s mediation efforts”, and added that China still wanted former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s peace plan put in place.
Annan quit in frustration as the international peace envoy for Syria early this month, but China has continued to argue that his proposals offer the most viable way out of the increasingly bloody war.
Opposition sources say at least 18,000 people have been killed since rebels began fighting to oust Assad in March 2011.
The ministry statement cited Shaaban as saying in response that Syria was willing to work will all sides to stop the violence and have “inclusive” talks with the opposition.
Earlier this week, China’s foreign ministry said it was considering playing host once again to the Syrian opposition, though it has given no subsequent update on that plan.
The ministry said Yang had informed Shaaban about China’s contacts with the Syrian opposition groups.
In an interview published earlier on Thursday, Shaaban praised China and Russia on their stance towards the bloody conflict engulfing her country, saying her visit to Beijing would give officials a “real picture” of the crisis.
Shaaban sought to cast China as a steadfast friend of Assad’s government, which is beset by a civil war against opposition forces.
“We’re happy to see countries like China and Russia, who are not colonizers or deal with people as colonizers,” Shaaban told the official English-language China Daily newspaper, adding that this is “a very different stance from the West”.
She said her visit would give “the Chinese leadership a real picture of what’s going on in Syria”.
In a separate interview with popular Chinese-language tabloid the Global Times, Shaaban said she hoped Syria’s friends in Russia, Iran and China could “help find a solution” to the crisis.
She also dismissed comments by former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who has fled to Jordan, that Assad only controls 30 percent of the country and his power is crumbling.
“What Hijab said was lies. He knows that very well,” Shaaban said.
“Anyone who does not have faith in the Syrian authorities or system can leave. But the number of defectors has been obviously exaggerated.”
On Wednesday, the official People’s Daily said China hoped the talks with the envoy and a proposed visit by opposition representatives would help rekindle hopes for a brokered solution to the violence in Syria.
But Chinese media commentary has also underscored the extent to which Beijing remains resistant to Western proposals for more forceful steps in Syria, where the tide turns steadily against Assad.
Apart from Iran, China and Russia have been Syria’s main supporters outside the Arab world. Both vetoed proposed U.N. Security Council resolutions intended to put Assad under more pressure.
Additional reporting by Chris Buckley and Sui-Lee Wee; Editing by Daniel Magnowski