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Scepticism over referendum claim
The Government gave a sceptical response to claims that Syria's President Bashar Assad is ready to end bloodshed and stage a referendum on a new constitution.
During a visit to Damascus, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said he had received assurances from Mr Assad that he was "completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from".
But Downing Street said Syria's government must be judged by its "savage" actions, not its words. Foreign Secretary William Hague is seeking urgent talks with Mr Lavrov to discuss the latest developments.
Prime Minister David Cameron chaired an hour-long meeting of the National Security Council, at which ministers and defence chiefs discussed what action the UK can take to support a peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria, after Russia and China vetoed an Arab-backed United Nations resolution.
The NSC agreed to support the Arab League's efforts to broker an Arab-led peace in the country; to push for new sanctions to put pressure on the Assad regime; and to work with the opposition to encourage them to set out a clear vision for a unified and peaceful Syria, said a Downing Street spokeswoman.
But there was no suggestion that the UK should send arms to opposition forces. Direct support was limited to face-to-face advice on communications, training, human rights and how to develop credible plans for a democratic future, said the spokeswoman.
Speaking after his talks with Mr Assad in Damascus, Mr Lavrov - who was given a hero's welcome by thousands of regime loyalists - said he had secured a promise that the president would seek an end to the bloodshed which has seen almost 6,000 die during an 11-month uprising.
The visit came on the fourth day of a regime assault on rebel stronghold Homs, where activists said at least 15 people had died, including a 15-year-old boy.
Russian news agencies reported Mr Lavrov as saying: "The president of Syria assured us he was 'completely committed to the task of stopping violence regardless of where it may come from'.
"President Assad informed (me) that he will meet in the coming days with the commission that prepared a draft of the new constitution. The work is finished, and now a date will be announced for a referendum on this important document for Syria."
Mr Lavrov, who was accompanied by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Mikhail Fradkov, also affirmed Moscow's "readiness to help foster the swiftest exit from the crisis on the basis of positions set out in the Arab League initiative".
He told Mr Assad: "Necessary reforms must be implemented in order to address legitimate demands of the people striving for a better life."
The Downing Street spokeswoman said: "The Foreign Secretary is looking to meet with Mr Lavrov, or at least speak to him, as soon as possible.
"We have seen the reports of Lavrov's visit, but our position has not changed. We will continue to judge the Syrian regime by its actions, not its words.
"Reports that President Assad is ready to talk to all political forces in Syria, to end the violence and set a route for a referendum on a new constitution stand in stark contrast to the actions they are taking and their savage attempt to crush the peaceful protest in Homs.
"The claim that Syria wants the Arab League to resume its monitoring lacks any credibility when that initial mission was suspended due to the deteriorating security situation."
Members of the six-nation Gulf Co-operation Council - Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - are pulling their ambassadors from Syria because of Mr Assad's refusal to accept Arab attempts to end the country's bloodshed.
And France, Italy and Spain are recalling their ambassadors for consultations, in what appeared to be a concerted EU effort to isolate Mr Assad following a similar move by Britain. The US has also shut its embassy in Damascus.
European Union states began work on a new round of sanctions against the Middle Eastern country, expected to be agreed on February 27, which could include a freeze on Syria's central bank assets and a ban on trade in precious metals.
Meanwhile, Mr Assad's British-born wife offered her full support to her husband in an email sent to The Times.
The message from the office of Asma Assad said: "The President is President of Syria, not a faction of Syrians, and the First Lady supports him in that role.
"The First Lady's very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with and rural development, as well as supporting the President as needed.
"These days she is equally involved in bridging gaps and encouraging dialogue. She listens to and comforts the families of the victims of the violence."
Mrs Assad, 36, was born to Syrian parents in London, and married Bashar shortly after he took up the presidency in 2000.