DAMASCUS: Diplomats scrambled Friday to save a peace plan for Syria in the face of 11th-hour objections from Russia that threaten a key international conference on ending the nearly 16-month long conflict.
Western governments have told U.N.-Arab League peace envoy Kofi Annan that there is no point in going ahead with Saturday's planned meeting in Geneva unless prior agreement can be reached on his proposals for a political transition in Syria, diplomats said.
With violence on the ground claiming 178 more lives on Thursday, 117 of them civilians, according to human rights monitors, Annan called crisis talks with senior officials of the major powers.
But diplomats said the fate of the peace conference could remain in the balance until a 1730 GMT meeting in Saint Petersburg between U.S.F Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The Geneva conference, which had been due to be attended by Clinton, Lavrov, and the foreign ministers of Britain, China, France, Kuwait, Qatar and Turkey and Kuwait, had been intended as a public show of support for Annan's peace efforts.
Annan announced the meeting on Tuesday, having said he would only convene it if he was sure ministers would unite around his plan to end the worsening violence which human rights monitors say has left more than 15,800 dead since March last year.
Russia, the last major ally of President Bashar Assad, has objected to a proposal which could limit membership of a transitional unity government in Syria, diplomats said.
Annan's plan, obtained by AFP, said the interim government could include Assad officials and the opposition "but would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".
Diplomats have said this means that Assad could be ruled out of the government but did not automatically exclude his participation. Opposition figures could also be kept out under the same formula, they stressed.
Lavrov insisted on Thursday that Assad's fate "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves."
He said world powers had yet to agree on any final resolution based on Annan's proposals for Saturday's meeting.
"There are no agreed drafts. Work on a possible final document continues," he told a news conference.
Lavrov, who later held telephone talks with Annan, agreed that reforms were needed in Syria.
"It is clearly the case that a transitional period is required to overcome the Syrian crisis and finally establish stable, generally-accepted rules and norms that suit all groups of the Syrian population," he said.
But Lavrov said those changes had to come from inside Syria.
"Foreign players should not be dictating their solutions to the Syrians. We do not and cannot support any intervention or solutions dictated from abroad," he said.
But speaking in Latvia before her departure for Saint Petersburg, Clinton rejected any suggestion that Annan was proposing a transition imposed from outside.
"In his transition document it is a Syrian-led transition, but you have to have a transition that complies with international standards on human rights, accountable governance, the rule of law," she said.
The U.S. top diplomat also insisted that by agreeing to attend the Geneva conference, Russia had implicitly signed up to Annan's proposals.
"It was very clear from the invitations that were extended by special envoy Kofi Annan that people were coming on the basis of the transition plan that he had presented," she said.
Russia has annoyed the West throughout the Syrian crisis by refusing to call for the exit of Assad, its last remaining ally in the Arab world. It has also defied pressure to stop delivering military hardware to his regime.
Amid the flurry of diplomatic activity, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was to hold Paris talks with Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the exiled opposition Syrian National Council, which has expressed its own reservations about any transition plan that does not require Assad to quit.
"The opposition has not yet received the details of the Annan proposal and cannot reply to it," SNC spokesman George Sabra told AFP on Thursday.
"But its firm position remains that the opposition would not participate in any political project unless Bashar Assad is removed from power."
Thursday's heaviest death toll was in the northern Damascus suburb of Douma where a bombardment by the army killed 36 people, among them six women and six children, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Footage postage by activists on YouTube showed the bloodied body of a young boy with a man standing over it screaming: "Was this child taking up arms against the Assad regime?"
Of the more than 15,800 people killed since the uprising broke out, nearly 4,700 have lost their lives since April 12, when a U.N.-backed ceasefire brokered by Annan was supposed to have taken effect, the Observatory said.