International envoy Kofi Annan said on Tuesday that Syria, suffering from persistent killings and abuses, was at a "tipping point" and he had appealed to President Bashar al-Assad to act immediately to halt the violence.
Annan said that in his talks with the Syrian leader in Damascus he "conveyed in frank terms the grave concern of the international community about the violence in Syria, including the recent shocking events in Houla."
He said Assad had also condemned the killings in Houla, where 108 people were massacred on Friday, almost half of them children. Assad's government has denied any role and blamed Islamist "terrorists."
"We are at a tipping point. The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division. Yet the killings continue and the abuses are still with us today," Annan told reporters in Damascus.
He gave no indication of any breakthrough in his two hours of talks with the Syrian leader, who is trying to crush a 14-month-old uprising against his rule which began with peaceful protests but has developed into an armed insurgency.
Syria's state news agency SANA said Assad told Annan that "terrorist groups" had stepped up their actions recently and it was up to the states which arm, finance and harbour them to abide by Annan's plan to end the violence engulfing Syria.
The joint U.N./Arab League envoy said he appealed to Assad for "bold steps now - not tomorrow, now," towards implementing his six-point plan, one part of which was an April 12 ceasefire which has failed to take hold.
"This means that the government and all government-backed militias could stop all military operations and show maximum restraint," Annan said. He appealed to Assad's armed opponents also to "cease acts of violence".
Asked if any timetable had been agreed for implementing steps to quell the violence, Annan said he made clear that "this is not an open-ended process."
"The time is coming, sooner rather than later, when the international community will need to make an assessment as to how things are going and what further action or activities may be necessary," he said.
Western states, which hold Assad's forces responsible for the Houla killings and the deaths of more than 9,000 people since March last year, have imposed economic sanctions on Syria. On Tuesday many of them expelled Syrian diplomats in a coordinated move to escalate pressure on Assad.
"I would prefer a situation where everybody is talking to each other to find a solution," Annan said. "But these governments decided . . . that they have to register their protests and their disapproval . . . It is their sovereign decision."
Annan said he and Assad had agreed on the importance of humanitarian aid flowing to all parts of Syria, and on the need for "unfettered access for the U.N. and aid agencies".
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Syria have been negotiating for weeks on a plan for the distribution of aid throughout the country, but U.N. envoys familiar with the talks said earlier this month that there was deadlock over who should be in charge.
Damascus wants to manage the delivery of all humanitarian aid to a million people in need of assistance as a result of the 14-month-old conflict, but the United Nations insists on having some control, the envoys said.
© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.