Russia, China baulk as West mulls armed action in Syria

China on Wednesday restated its opposition to military intervention in Syria, as Russia sought to halt fresh UN Security Council action after a massacre of civilians sparked global fury.

The renewed support by Moscow and Beijing for the Damascus regime came as numerous Western nations, including the United States, Britain and France, expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of Friday's massacre and after France floated the idea of armed intervention to protect civilians.

"China opposes military intervention in Syria and opposes regime change by force," foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing.

Liu added that China urged all parties to implement UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's ceasefire proposal in Syria and to seek to end the bloody crisis through negotiations.

With Russian and Chinese support, the UN Security Council on Sunday strongly condemned the Syrian government for using artillery in a massacre in the central town of Houla in which at least 108 people were killed.

But Russia, which along with China has vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions highly critical of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, on Wednesday said it was "premature" for the council to consider new action.

"We believe that a review now by the Security Council of any new measures on the situation would be premature," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency in comments that appeared to dash Washington's hopes of a change of heart in Moscow.

The US State Department had said on Tuesday it hoped the Houla tragedy would spark a "turning point" in Russia's reluctance to take tougher action against its Soviet-era ally.

Annan, during a meeting with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, urged the Syrian leader to act immediately to end 15 months of bloodshed which has claimed thousands of lives, warning that the country had reached a "tipping point."

French President Francois Hollande had said on Tuesday that he did not rule out military intervention, provided it were approved by the UN Security Council.

"An armed intervention is not excluded on the condition that it is carried out with respect to international law, meaning after deliberation by the United Nations Security Council," he said in a television interview.

Australia said it was open to discussion about military intervention in Syria but warned of the significant challenges involved in getting it off the ground.

Japan on Wednesday joined the chorus of international outrage at the slaughter of civilians in Houla, telling the Syrian ambassador in Tokyo to leave the country "as soon as possible."

Japan's decision followed the apparently coordinated expulsion of diplomats the previous day by the European Union, the United States and other governments including Australia, Canada and Switzerland.

Annan was in Amman on Wednesday to discuss the Syrian crisis with Jordan's leaders, after appearing to make little headway to staunch the bloodletting during his visit Monday and Tuesday to Syria.

On Tuesday alone, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a total of 98 people were killed across Syria with another nine dying violently on on Wednesday morning.

Speaking after his talks with the Syrian leader in the capital, Annan lamented the continuing killings and abuses that have fatally undermined his peace blueprint, which was supposed to begin with a ceasefire from April 12 that has never taken hold.

"I appealed to him (Assad) for bold steps now -- not tomorrow, now -- to create momentum for the implementation of the plan.

"This means that the government, and all government-backed militias, could stop all military operations and show maximum restraint."

The Syrian authorities have repeatedly insisted that the lion's share of the blame for the deaths lies with armed rebels, a position Assad restated in his talks with Annan.

"The success of the Annan plan depends on the end of terrorist acts and those who support them and the smuggling of weapons," Assad was quoted as saying.

But UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous pointed the finger towards a militia loyal to Assad.

"There is strong suspicion that the Shabiha were involved in this tragedy in Houla," Ladsous told reporters at the UN headquarters.

More than 13,000 people have been killed, most of them civilians, since the uprising against Assad's regime erupted in March last year, according to the Britain-based Observatory.

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