BEIRUT (Reuters) - Turkey’s foreign minister held his first acknowledged meeting with Syrian opposition leaders, urging them to use peaceful means despite what activists say was the biggest offensive yet in the city of Homs by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Ahmed Davutoglu’s discussion with the opposition Syrian National Council Monday night, reported by an unnamed Turkish foreign ministry official, followed a threat by Syria to deal firmly with any country which formally recognizes the council.
Turkey was an ally to Assad but ties soured when the Syrian president responded with force to the protests against his rule.
“The meeting is the first step toward Turkey recognizing the National Council, they are not very worried about the regime’s reaction because the relationship is already ruptured,” said Lebanese analyst Hilal Khashan.
The formation of the council has been welcomed by Western countries including the United States and France.
However, unlike the transitional council set up by Libyan rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi, Western governments have not offered the SNC any formal recognition, fearing a civil war that could destabilize the region.
Davutoglu’s talks with the opposition also followed fresh signs that the seven-month uprising against Assad’s rule has become more militant. One opposition group reported the assassination Tuesday of an intelligence officer in the northern province of Idlib.
Davutoglu told the council “the Syrian opposition ... should employ peaceful and legitimate means to express their just demands and in a peaceful manner work to maintain the unity of the opposition and for a democratic transformation.”
Turkey has allowed opponents of Assad to meet in Turkish cities since anti-Assad protests started in March and has also given sanctuary to the most senior Syrian military to defect.
Davutoglu’s talks followed one of the highest daily death tolls in Homs, the central Syrian city that has seen some of the most extensive protests against Assad.
Residents said Syrian forces backed by tanks killed at least 25 people in a thrust into the opposition hotbed, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus, aimed at stemming growing armed resistance to Assad’s crackdown on the seven-month-old uprising.
Tanks firing machineguns swept into Sunni districts of Bab Sbaa, Bab Dreib and Bab Amro where large protests demanding the removal of Assad have taken place, residents and activists said.
Army deserters and armed residents hit back with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), hitting several tanks, they said.
Homs is close to the border with Lebanon, which has begun to serve as a supply line to insurgents in the city and surrounding countryside, including army defectors who have increased in numbers since the crackdown intensified two months ago.
Tuesday, troops sealed off districts in the city and searched the countryside for army defectors, residents said.
“Bab Sbaa, Bab Amro, al-Khalidya and al-Baiyada are totally sealed and machinegun fire keeps being directed at these neighborhoods. The only area where there are no troops or ‘shabbiha’ is downtown, where only a few people are on the streets and there are virtually no cars,” a resident of the city, who gave his name as Wael, told Reuters.
“Martyrs will be buried today, so we are expecting more deaths. A good number of the casualties yesterday occurred at funerals,” another resident said.
The United Nations says Assad’s crackdown has killed 3,000 people across Syria since March including at least 187 children. Syrian authorities blame the unrest on “armed terrorist groups” which they say have killed 1,100 army and police and are operating in Homs, killing civilians and prominent figures.
The official news agency said troops had arrested “the head of one of the leading terrorist groups” in Homs and confiscated weapons, including RPGs and gunpowder.
Foreign reporters are largely banned from Syria, making independent confirmation of reported events difficult.
Mindful of the threat of civil war in Syria, which straddles major fault lines of Middle East conflict, the Arab League offered Sunday to host talks in Cairo between the opposition, who have formed a National Council, and the Damascus leadership.
But Syria’s representative to the League said Syria had major reservations about the offer, while the Syrian National Council said it could not engage in talks while Assad’s military continued to storm restive cities and towns.
Additional reporting by Khaled Oweis in Amman, Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; editing by Philippa Fletcher