GENEVA: International powers agreed on Saturday that a transitional government should be set up in Syria to end the bloodshed there but left open the question of what part President Bashar al-Assad might play in the process.
Peace envoy Kofi Annan said after talks in Geneva that the government should include members of Assad's administration and the Syrian opposition to pave the way for free elections.
"It is for the people to come to a political agreement but time is running out," Annan said in concluding remarks.
"We need rapid steps to reach agreement. The conflict must be resolved through peaceful dialogue and negotiations."
The Geneva talks had been billed as a last-ditch effort to halt the worsening violence in Syria but hit obstacles as Russia, Assad's most powerful ally, opposed Western and Arab insistence that he must quit the scene.
The final communiqué said the transitional government "could include members of the present government and the opposition and other groups and shall be formed on the basis of mutual consent".
But in a victory for Russian diplomacy, it omitted language contained in a previous draft which explicitly said it "would exclude from government those whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was "delighted" with the result as it meant no foreign solution was being imposed on Syria.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it sent a clear message to Assad that he must step down.
"Assad will still have to go," Clinton told a news conference after the meeting ended.
"What we have done here is to strip away the fiction that he and those with blood on their hands can stay in power."
Annan called the meeting to salvage a peace plan that has largely been ignored by the Assad government. He stressed that the transition must be led by Syrians and meet their legitimate aspirations.
"No one should be in any doubt as to the extreme dangers posed by the conflict - to Syrians, to the region, and to the world," he said in opening remarks.
His plan for a negotiated solution to the 16-month-old conflict is the only one on the table and its failure would doom Syria to even more violence. More than 10,000 people have been killed since the anti-Assad uprising broke out and the past few weeks have been among the bloodiest.
Highlighting the deteriorating situation on the ground, Syrian government forces pushed their way into Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on Saturday after weeks of siege and shelling. Fleeing residents spoke of corpses lying in the streets.
Britain's ITV showed footage of clouds of black smoke over built-up areas and said warplanes had struck at targets in the suburb.
The army also attacked pro-opposition areas in Deir al-Zor, Homs, Idlib and the outskirts of Damascus, opposition activists said.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad and his close associates could not lead any transition. Accountability for war crimes must be part of such a process, he added in his speech to the meeting.
Hague called for the U.N. Security Council to start drafting a resolution next week setting out sanctions against Syria, a move that he noted put him at odds with Russia.
The foreign ministers of the council's five permanent members - Russia, the United States, China, France and Britain - all attended along with Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.
Notably uninvited were 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. Nor was anyone from the Syrian government or opposition represented.
PATH TO WAR
The Syrian conflict has evolved from peaceful protests against the Assad family's four-decade rule to something akin to a civil war with a sectarian dimension.
The world has condemned the ferocity of Assad's forces' crackdown - including military assaults on pro-opposition areas and mass arrests - but has been unable to halt violence which threatens to draw in the region's religious and political rivalries and alliances.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 56 people had been killed across the country on Saturday.
Syria's border with Turkey was also tense following a Turkish military build-up in response to Syria's shooting down of a Turkish warplane last week.
A Syrian witness said Turkish forces stationed on the border opposite the Syrian town of Jandaris fired machineguns in the air in response to Syrian army bombardment of rebel areas.
"It was to tell the Syrian side we are here," the witness said.
Syrian forces re-entered Douma and soldiers were carrying out searches in hospitals for dissidents and rebel fighters, activists said. Electricity and water were cut off.
Abo Abdullah, 50, said he and his five children left Douma on Sunday morning fearing attacks by government forces.
"I saw at least three bodies on a street corner, some houses were destroyed, others were on fire. Only a few people remained inside the city. Those who can, leave," he said.
"I saw a body on the side of the street and dogs were gathering around it."
State news agency SANA said security forces were raiding hideouts in Douma of "armed terrorist groups" and had killed, wounded or arrested scores.
Although the government routinely refers to its enemies as foreign-controlled terrorists, Assad himself conceded this week that the country was now in a state of war.