DAMASCUS — Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger headed to Syria on a humanitarian mission on Monday as President Bashar al-Assad's regime pressed its deadly bid to crush dissent, reportedly hitting rebels near Turkey.
The International Committee of the Red Cross president was making his third visit to Syria since 2011, as monitors and activists said at least 18 more people, mostly civilians, were killed in the latest bloodshed.
Kellenberger said he would meet officials including Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and examine measures for a two-hour humanitarian ceasefire, also a condition set out in a peace plan drawn up by UN-Arab envoy Kofi Annan.
"I am determined to see the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent expand their presence, range and scope of activities to address the needs of vulnerable people," he said in a statement on the two-day trip.
In Istanbul on Sunday, the so-called Friends of Syria group -- Arab League members and nations including the United States, France and Germany -- steered clear of backing opposition appeals for arms.
But the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group in exile funded by Gulf Arab states, said it would pay the salaries of rebel fighters seeking to oust President Bashar al-Assad.
Annan, meanwhile, is scheduled to brief the UN Security Council later Monday after a call from Western and Arab nations for him to seek a deadline for Damascus to implement his initiative.
But Russia rejected the idea, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying "ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters," as Moscow sent a warship to the Syrian port of Tartus.
Assad had on Tuesday said he accepted Annan's six-point plan.
Besides the humanitarian ceasefire, it calls for an end to violence, an inclusive Syrian-led political process, the right to demonstrate, and the release of people detained arbitrarily.
Official Syrian media belittled the Istanbul conference, with one newspaper saying the gathering of what it called the "Enemies of Syria" was a failure for those seeking to remove Assad.
"Despite all the hype, the conference of the 'Enemies of Syria' produced only meagre results... showing it was unable to shake Syrians' rejection of foreign intervention," said Al-Baath, mouthpiece of Assad's ruling party by the same name.
Under the headline "Another Failure," it said "the participants will eventually recognise that the resistance of the Syrians, the (government's pledged) reforms and the double veto by Russia and China... have allowed Syria to overcome the crisis and win the battle."
The rebel Free Syrian Army accused the world of failing to protect Syrians, saying it was ignoring the Assad regime's "massacres" by refusing to arm the insurgents.
"The international community, by delaying to put pressure on the regime and preventing the arming of the rebels, assumes full responsibility for the massacres," said FSA spokesman Colonel Kassem Saadeddine.
Russia, a Soviet-era ally of the Assad regime, said only the UN Security Council, where it wields veto power, could put any time restrictions on Syria's compliance with the Annan plan.
"The demands should be put to all sides of the barricades," Lavrov said. "We intend to be friends with both sides in Syria," he said in reference to Russia's support for Assad.
Meanwhile, news agency reports said a Russian guided-missile destroyer would dock at Tartus in the coming days on a planned mission to the region.
The Smetlivy would take on supplies for a "purely technical" call at the Russian-leased port before planned exercises off Syria's Mediterranean coast, officials were cited as saying.
On Monday, security forces pressed their crackdown on dissent, with 10 civilians, five rebel fighters and three soldiers among those killed in violence across Syria, monitors and activists said.
Troops set ablaze houses in Deir Subol, Farkia and Hass, villages in Idlib province on Syria's northwestern border with Turkey, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
An explosion killed a civilian in the northern city of Aleppo, added the monitoring group.
In Daraa, cradle of the uprising, forces carried out arrest raids in the town of Dael, where two houses were burned and a third collapsed, said the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees activist group.
In the same region, army deserters fired rocket-propelled grenades at checkpoints at Inkhel, killing two soldiers, while gunfire was heard in Tafas village.
Heavy machinegun fire was heard in the Hamidiyeh and Souk al-Hashish neighbourhoods of Homs city, one of the main targets of the regime's year-long crackdown, said the LCC.
Two civilians were killed in Homs and three elsewhere in Homs province and in Qusayr.
In Damascus, an explosion went off near Hotel Kinda and a police station in the central neighbourhood of Marja, injuring four people, state television and witnesses said.
The UN estimates more than 9,000 people have died in the crackdown on the uprising that began in March last year, inspired by Arab Spring protests that toppled long-time dictators in Tunisia and Egypt.
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