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Turkey to halt consular services in Damascus
Turkey urges citizens in Syria to come home, says some consular services to be halted
By The Associated Press

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) ' Turkey has urged its citizens in Syria to return home, saying some consular services will be halted in Damascus next week.

The Foreign Ministry says in a statement Friday that developments in Syria have brought about serious security risks for Turkish citizens and they are "strongly urged to come home."

It says consular services at the Turkish embassy in Damascus will be halted at the end of office hours on March 22. However, it says the Turkish consulate in Aleppo will remain open.

The Turkish embassy in Damascus also remains open.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

PARIS (AP) ' France's foreign minister has rejected weapons requests by the Syrian rebel forces, saying Thursday that arming the Syrian opposition could lead to catastrophic civil war.

The Syrian opposition is divided as it marks one year since its uprising against President Bashar Assad's regime began, and diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed are showing few signs of progress.

"We are waiting for the international community to act and not talk. That means do what it takes in Syria," Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun told a rally in Paris on Thursday night marking the anniversary.

Russia, a powerful ally of Syria's, is opposed to any new sanctions or international action in Syria, but offered its support Thursday to former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan in his efforts to help end the violence.

Annan met twice with Assad over the weekend and made proposals to end the bloodshed. Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AP that Syria responded, Annan had questions and there has been another exchange and a phone conversation with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.

Annan, the joint U.N. and Arab League special envoy, has also spoken to other international actors before his videoconference briefing to the Security Council at a closed meeting Friday morning, Fawzi said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, on the first anniversary of the uprising, urged the government and opposition to cooperate with Annan to stop the bloodshed and find a political solution. He said well over 8,000 people have been killed and blamed the government for resorting to repression instead of peaceful political dialogue.

"It is urgent to break the cycle of violence, stop military operations against civilians and prevent a further militarization of the conflict in Syria," U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The U.N. advisers on preventing genocide and protecting civilians in conflict went further, saying in a joint statement that "there is strong and growing evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed in Syria."

Francis Deng and Edward Luck warned that the government's increasingly violent assault, encouraged by a lack of concerted international action, was deepening sectarian divides and bringing the country "to the brink of civil war."

Syrian rebel forces are asking for new weapons after two significant defeats by government troops. But leading world powers such as the United States and France seem wary of getting embroiled in a new conflict after months of NATO-led airstrikes in Libya.

"The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on France-Culture radio Thursday.

France, Syria's former colonial ruler, is backing the opposition against Assad and pushing for Assad's departure. Juppe says arming the opposition could lead to "a catastrophe even larger than the one that exists today."

Divisions among the Syrian opposition have kept them from forming a single unified force that the international community is rallying behind.

Juppe's comments echoed those of President Barack Obama in Washington on Wednesday, who warned that an international response could lead to more deaths.

"Send us money, we're desperate. Send us weapons," Ahmad Kassem, who coordinates military operations for the rebel Free Syrian Army, told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Opposition leader Ghalioun insisted that the Free Syrian Army is committed to "the defense and protection of Syrian civilians who are being attacked by a very well-organized and armed army."

Russia, meanwhile, says it is continuing to supply weapons to Syria's government that could be used to fend off external threats ' but not against protesters. Russia backs Assad's claim that the uprising is a foreign conspiracy and that weapons and militants have been brought into Syria from abroad.

Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Syria's Assad were Russian allies before uprisings last year started sweeping away entrenched Arab leaders. Gadhafi was killed last year.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov spoke by telephone Thursday with Annan and "expressed his support for the envoy's mission, noting that Russia would provide him with active assistance," the Foreign Ministry said.

Lavrov issued unusual criticism of Assad's regime this week, which Germany's foreign minister welcomed. "I hope this is a sign that we will find our way to a common position," Guido Westerwelle said in a statement Thursday.

U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos again appealed to the Syrian government as fighting intensifies to provide unhindered access for aid organizations so they can identify urgent needs and provide emergency care "in a neutral and impartial manner."

She said a Syrian government-led mission will visit Homs, Hama, Daraa and other cities at the center of the country's uprising starting this weekend, accompanied by U.N. and Organization of Islamic Cooperation staff who will assess humanitarian needs and conditions in the cities and towns. The mission will also visit Tartous, Lattakia, Aleppo, Deir el-Zour and rural Damascus, Amos said.

Syrians first took to the streets in March last year to call for political reforms, and the protests spread as Assad's security forces violently cracked down. Some in the opposition have since taken up arms.

Saudi Arabia and Bahrain said Thursday they are closing their embassies in Damascus, after several other countries did the same.


Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Barbara Surk in Dubai and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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