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Originally published Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 5:27 AM

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UN chief urges cease-fire in Syria to speed up aid

Syrian regime troops and rebels clashed anew on Thursday as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the Security Council sent a clear message to Damascus that all violence must stop immediately to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Associated Press

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BEIRUT —

Syrian regime troops and rebels clashed anew on Thursday as U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said the Security Council sent a clear message to Damascus that all violence must stop immediately to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid.

Activists said Syrian forces were fighting rebels in the southern province of Daraa, outside of Damascus and in the central city of Hama, where they army was shelling a restive neighborhood.

There was no definite word on casualties in Thursday's clashes. The U.N. says more than 8,000 people have been killed in the year-old conflict.

Speaking to reporters in Malaysia, Ban said there must be a cease-fire so that humanitarian aid can be dispatched.

The Syrian uprising, which began one year ago, is transforming into an armed insurgency that many fear is pushing the country toward civil war. Because of Syria's close alliances with Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, there are deep concerns that the violence could spread beyond the country's borders, especially if other nations arm the rebels or send in their own troops.

Ban said Thursday that "nobody is discussing military operations" to resolve the crisis. But he said the Red Cross has proposed a few hours' halt in violence every day so humanitarian aid can be delivered.

The previously divided U.N. Security Council sent a united message to the Syrian government and opposition on Wednesday to immediately implement proposals by international envoy Kofi Annan to end the yearlong bloodshed.

A nonbinding statement approved by the 15 council members and read at a formal meeting spells out Annan's six proposals which include a cease-fire first by the Syrian government, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide humanitarian aid, and inclusive Syrian-led political talks "to address the legitimate concerns of the Syrian people."

Annan, the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy, appealed to the Security Council last Friday for its backing, saying the stronger and more unified the message, the better the chances of shifting the dynamics of the conflict.

Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant, the current council president, said the council statement sends "precisely the strong and united message to the Syrian government and all other actors in Syria that they need to respond, and respond quickly and immediately, to the six-point plan."

In a bid to win support from Russia and China, which have twice vetoed European and U.S.-backed resolutions condemning President Bashar Assad's crackdown on protesters, France watered down the statement to eliminate possible consideration of "further measures" which could include sanctions or military action.

Instead, the presidential statement now asks Annan to update the council regularly on the progress of his mission and says that "in the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate."

A presidential statement, which needs approval from all council members, becomes part of the council's permanent record. It is stronger than a press statement, which does not. But unlike resolutions, neither statement is legally binding.

Russia and China had called the earlier resolutions unbalanced, saying they only blamed the Syrian government and demanded an end to government attacks, not ones by the opposition. Moscow also argued that the resolutions promoted regime change in Syria and expressed fear of outside intervention to support the rebels, as happened in Libya.

Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, played down the U.N. statement, saying on Thursday that there are no threats or ultimatums directed toward Damascus. The agency's assessment echoed an earlier statement by Syrian ally Russia.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a number of civilians were wounded in government shelling of the Arbaeen neighborhood in the central city of Hama, where rebels were fighting back.

A rebel attack on an army convoy in the in the southern Daraa province killed one soldier, the group said.

Another group, the Local Coordination Committees, reported clashes in the southern village of Nawa and in the mountain town of Zabadani, northwest of Damascus.

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Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Putrajaya, Malaysia, contributed to this report.

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