Washington considers Syria opposition conference for dialogue a significant event

European countries warn of chaos in Syria

Bouthaineh Shaaban says Syria is ready to enhance democracy

Turkey deploys troops on borders with Syria

Washington is pressing the Syrian opposition to back a reform plan keeping President Bashar al-Assad in power despite overthrow demands, opposition officials said.

U.S. State Department officials, including Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, have been discreetly promoting the idea that the opposition maintain dialogue with the regime and discuss the unpublished draft "roadmap," the officials told Britain's The Guardian newspaper.

The document -- subtitled "enabling the Syrian authority to make a secure and peaceful transition to civil democracy" -- was circulated at the first government-sanctioned opposition conference held in the capital, Damascus, Monday.

A State Department spokesman told the newspaper it encouraged "genuine dialogue between the opposition and the regime, but we are not promoting anything."

"We want to see a democratic Syria, but this is in the hands of the Syrian people," he said.

The document says Assad would oversee "a secure and peaceful transition to civil democracy" -- words similar to what opposition conference organizer Louay Hussein said at the start of conference.

The meeting of 190 opposition leaders would explore a vision for "ending tyranny and ensuring a peaceful and safe transition to a desired state -- one of freedom, democracy, and equality," said Hussein, whose name appears at the bottom of the document with that of conference co-chairman Maan Abdelsalam.

The 3,000-word roadmap, which The Guardian posted online in English and Arabic, calls for tighter control over Syrian security forces, the disbanding of plainclothes shabiha, pro-government militia gangs accused of atrocities, the legal right to peaceful demonstrations, far-reaching media freedoms and the appointment of a transitional assembly.

It demands a "clear and frank apology" and accountability from organizations and individuals who "failed to accommodate legitimate protests," as well as compensation to victims' families.

The opposition says more than 1,400 people have been killed since mid-March. The government says 500 members of the security forces have died.

The document also calls for Assad's ruling Baath Party to make up 30 of 100 members of the proposed transitional assembly, with the 70 others appointed by Assad in consultation with opposition nominees.

"They are asking Bashar to lead the transition and this is not acceptable to the protesters," exiled opposition figure Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Center for Human Rights, told the newspaper. "It is too late."

Syria on Wednesday scorned the European Union's criticism of Damascus over its violent crackdown on popular unrest, saying this showed Europe wanted to sow chaos in the country.

Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said he was confident that despite mounting international pressure on Syria, three months into an uprising against the Assad family's 41-year rule, there would be no foreign military intervention in his country, nor a no-fly zone of the kind NATO has imposed over Libya.

"The reactions from European Union officials to President Assad's speech (show) they have a plan and they want to continue with it, (they want) to plant strife and chaos in Syria," Moualem told a news conference in Damascus. "Stop intervening in Syria's affairs, do not stir chaos nor strife, the Syrian people ... are capable of making their own future away from you ... Any external intervention is rejected."

EU states reached a political agreement on Wednesday to extend sanctions against Syria to four military-linked entities and seven individuals, including three Iranians, linked to suppression of dissent.

"There is a political agreement on extending the list," an EU diplomat said, adding that the new sanctions would take effect on Friday, once all 27 EU states have written on Thursday to give their formal approval.

Moualem warned that Syria would turn to other regions for trade and support.

"We will forget that Europe is on the map, and we will turn to the east, to the south and all directions that extend a hand to Syria. The world is not only Europe. Syria will remain steadfast," he told a news conference in Damascus.

Before the uprising, Western countries had been re-cultivating relations with Damascus after a period in which they isolated it to try to weaken its strategic alliance with Iran.

Reuters monitored the televised broadcast from outside the country, since Syria has expelled its correspondents.

In a speech on Monday, only his third since the outbreak of protests in which rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed, Assad promised reforms and called for national dialogue.

Many Syrians and world leaders dismissed his pledges as stale and inadequate. Violence continued on Tuesday with the killing of seven people by gunmen in two cities during rival protests by Assad loyalists and opponents, an opposition activist said.

Moualem said his country would not accept demands from "outside Syria" and blamed American sanctions in 2003 for the delay in reforms in Syria.

He urged Turkey, once a close ally but now an increasingly vocal critic of Assad, to reconsider its frosty response to his speech and said Syria wanted the "best relations with Turkey."

Syria's ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabalan, said on Wednesday Turkey-Syria ties were a "strategic relationship" for both countries and for the whole region, but added Damascus expected a more "even-handed approach" from its neighbor.

"We believe that some of the statements that have been voiced were a little bit too strong," Kabalan told Reuters.

"Those (protesters) are Islamic fundamentalists, al-Qaeda-types, who have their own agenda and foreign affiliations and programs. We have seen what they have done in Afghanistan, in Iraq and in some other Gulf countries," he said.

Residents and activists said hundreds of Syrians were arrested since Tuesday despite Assad's announcement of a general amnesty, the second in three weeks.

The arrests concentrated on the coast, the city of Homs and the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, which borders Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland. Tens of students were also beaten and arrested overnight at Damascus University dormitories, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The human rights situation in Syria is becoming even worse, with security forces and gangs increasingly attacking neighborhoods and more arbitrary arrests of Syrian citizens," the Observatory said in a statement.

After Assad's first amnesty, authorities freed hundreds of political prisoners but rights groups have not reported any releases after the second amnesty.

Rights groups say Syria has more than 14,000 political prisoners. Around 10,000 have been arrested during the uprising. Hundreds have gone missing after seen last being taken by secret police.

Authorities say more than 200 police and security forces have been killed by armed gangs.

Syria, a country of 20 million, has a Sunni majority, and the protests demanding political freedoms and the departure from power of the Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite sect, have been biggest in mostly Sunni rural areas and towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.

Fears are growing that Syria, a mosaic of Alawites, Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druzes and other groups, could implode into sectarian savagery similar to the conflict that ripped through Iraq after Saddam's ousting.

Syria, which borders Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, also exerts regional influence because of its alliance with Iran and its continued role in Lebanon, despite ending a 29-year military presence there in 2005.

It also has an influence in Iraq.

The new sanctions list was drawn up by Britain and France the brought the total number of individuals and entities targeted by EU sanctions on Syria to 34.

The EU diplomat said the Iranians were involved in providing equipment and technical support to help Syrian authorities suppress dissent.

Moualem denied that Iran or its Lebanese ally Hezbollah had intervened to confront Syrian protesters, and said that the killings of some police and soldiers indicated that Islamist group al Qaeda might be behind some of the violence.

"I cannot hide (the fact) that some of the practices that we have seen in the killings of security personnel gives an indication that these acts were carried out by al Qaeda," he said, without elaborating.

In May, the European Union added Assad and other senior officials to a list of those banned from traveling to the EU and subject to asset freezes.

A top adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad defended the regime's actions Tuesday, arguing that the government is not attacking peaceful protesters, despite widespread witness reports of a fierce crackdown against displays of dissent.

"Security forces are there against armed groups," Bouthaineh Shaaban told CNN in an interview, referring to the shadowy entities the regime has consistently said are responsible for the violence sweeping the Arab country since mid-March. "We're not targeting demonstrators. I think peaceful demonstrators have made their point, and they are making their point every day. We have no problem with that."

Shaaban said the government would like "to talk to peaceful demonstrators" and is not opposed to peaceful protests. What it wants to do, she said, is "isolate armed militants." She and other Syrian government officials have not provided more detail about the armed groups and their financing.

Shaaban said that while demonstrators have "legitimate grievances," there are extremists who are using protests "as a cover to incite sectarian violence in Syria" and are badly hurting the economy.

Bloodshed has engulfed Syria ever since demonstrators took to the streets in the southern city of Daraa to protest the arrests of young people for scribbling anti-government graffiti.

Witnesses reported a tough crackdown against the demonstrators. That sparked more protests and tough security reactions across the country.

The videos and witness accounts filtering out of Syria of the security actions have spurred international outrage toward the regime.

Rami Abdelrahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told CNN Tuesday that 1,342 civilians and 343 security personnel have died since the protests erupted.

Shaaban said Tuesday that more than 500 police officers and government troops and police have been killed in the violence, in which "religious extremists" are "directing purposeful assassinations."

"They are the ones who are killing children, who are killing women, who are maiming people, who are cutting people into pieces," she said, referring to the "extremists."

CNN cannot independently verify the death tolls. However, sources in Turkey and Lebanon can account for the many Syrians who've fled to their countries to escape violence.

Turkey has deployed troops on its southern border with Syria after Syrian troops set up camp 500m away from the boundary, reports Turkish daily Yeni Safak.

Ankara has warned Syria against further provocations after more than 10,000 Syrian refugees fled to Turkey and are living in tent cities. The refugees fear being attacked by the Syrian army which is surrounding and entering villages along the border of Turkey's Hatay province.

According to Millyet newspaper, the border is seen as a powder keg and Deputy Chief of General Staff General Asian Guner and National Intelligence Agency Undersecretary Hakan Fidan had a meeting to discuss the situation.

Commenting on the situation, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that if Syria does not stop the border incidents, there will be "an escalation" of military action.