BEIRUT (AP) — The international envoy to Syria said after talks with the country's leader Monday that the situation was "worrying" and gave no indication of progress toward a negotiated solution for the civil war.
Lakhdar Brahimi's mission came as activists reported intense fighting in the central province of Hama, where anti-government gunmen entered the predominantly Alawite town of Maan. Assad's regime is dominated by members of his minority Alawite sect, an off-shoot of Shiite Islam, while most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.
Brahimi said he and President Bashar Assad exchanged views on the crisis and discussed possible steps forward, which he did not disclose. He spoke briefly to reporters after meeting the Syrian leader at the presidential palace in Damascus.
"The situation in Syria is still worrying and we hope that all the parties will go toward the solution that the Syrian people are hoping for and look forward to," Brahimi said.
Syria's state news agency quoted Assad as saying his government supports "any effort in the interest of the Syrian people which preserves the homeland's sovereignty and independence."
Brahimi has apparently made little progress toward brokering an end to the conflict since starting his job in September, primarily because both sides adamantly refuse to talk to each other.
The government describes the rebels as foreign-backed terrorists set on destroying the country. The opposition says that forces under Assad's command have killed too many people for him to be part of any solution.
Activists say more than 40,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Brahimi's two-day visit was to end later Monday. It is his third to Damascus as an envoy of the United Nations and the Arab League.
The security situation in Damascus and elsewhere in the country has declined since Brahimi's previous visits. Instead of flying in to the Damascus International Airport as he did on earlier visits, Brahimi drove to Damascus over land from the Lebanese capital Beirut because of fighting near the Damascus airport.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted activists in the central city of Homs as saying that six rebels died in two neighborhoods Sunday night after inhaling white smoke that came out of shells fired on the area.
"We demand that an international team be sent to the area to investigate the type" of the shells used, said Observatory chief Rami Abdul-Rahman.
Amateur videos released by activists showed men in hospital beds suffering breathing problems as doctors placed oxygen masks on their faces. Some of them coughed strongly as they tried to breath.
"At first, the smell was strong. Then little by little, it got weaker," a man who was identified as a rebel in the area said in the video. "The smell was like hydrochloric acid, and people started choking and I wasn't able to breath." He added.