Smoke rises from Bab Sabaa neighbourhood of Homs
Smoke rises from Bab Sabaa neighbourhood of Homs Reuters

A day after the Free Syrian Army rebels took the fighting to the Syrian capital of Damascus, Russia has announced it is ready to support an UN-backed initiative to end the violence.

As fighting continues between the Syrian army and rebels fighting for the opposition, Russia has said it will support a United Nations plan to find a solution to the crisis.

Moscow has proven a strong ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, though Russia's attitude is shifting as the violence intensifies.

Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said the government would support a UN resolution endorsing UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's plan to end the Syrian crisis.

Lavrov, however, warned that the initiative should not entail presenting an ultimatum to Bashar's government.

The Annan proposal includes halting the violence, humanitarian access, the release of detainees imprisoned since the uprising began and withdrawal of security forces from cities.

The Syrian government has insisted it will only participate in ceasefire talks if the opposition lays down its arms.

Neighbouring countries will also need to guarantee that they will not send arms to the opposition, or otherwise provide it with financially or politically support, AFP reported.

The change in Russia's attitude vis-a-vis Assad comes as reports suggest Moscow had deployed special forces in Syria.

The Russian government responded with a statement from the defence ministry denying the opposition's claims about the presence of Russian warships in Syrian waters.

The communique explained that an oil tanker has been stationed in the Syrian port of Tartus for 10 days, but it is only there to assist ships from the Black Sea Fleet with logistic support and to fight piracy.

It insisted that the crew on the oil tanker is made up of civilians, though a security unit is also on board.

"As the defence ministry said, it is an oil tanker. We don't have any warships in Syrian regional waters. There are no Russian special forces aboard the oil tanker... but we should be aware that, aboard these kinds of tankers, there is always a force to protect it against any attack. Ships of the Black Sea Fleet are operating within the framework of an international plan for anti-piracy," Lavrov said.

Violence Continues

Heavy fighting continued to be reported between Syrian troops and members of the Free Syrian Army in the upmarket Mezze district of the capital, not far from Assad's palace.

The city has remained one of the largest of the regime's strongholds and, on the anniversary of the uprising, a massive demonstration was organised to show continued support for Assad.

The move did not deter rebels from making their presence known in the heavily guarded district, where machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades could be heard, opposition sources said.

Shelling also continued in the Bab Shaa neighbourhood of Homs, activists warned, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights said at least 54 people died across the country on 19 March.

Rebels Accused of Torture

While crimes committed by the security forces continue to emerge, Human Rights Watch has denounced atrocities committed by rebels fighting the regime.

A year on from the start of the uprising and its attendant crackdown, the insurgency has become increasingly militarised, though it began peacefully.

Hundreds of defectors have joined the ranks of the Free Syrian Army to fight the regime. They have called on Western and Arab powers to provide them with weapons.

Assad's regime has claimed that the insurgency is led by terrorists and armed gangs backed by foreign powers seeking to destabilise the government.

Despite the defections, Assad's army remains strong, armed and well organised, but rights groups warn that violent crimes are now taking place on both sides of the divide.

"The Syrian government's brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap or execute under any circumstances," she stressed, adding that the organisation had received reports about the execution of both civilians and Syrian troops.