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syria 400DAMASCUS: Syria declared diplomats of several major Western states and Turkey as personae non gratae on Tuesday as Russia and China, which have stalled Western-led UN moves against Damascus, began talks focused on the crisis.

The foreign ministry said it made the move against the ambassadors of the United States, Britain, France and Turkey, among others, in response to the expulsion of its own diplomats, in the aftermath of last month's Houla massacre.

"Some states recently informed heads of our diplomatic missions and embassy staff that they are unwelcome," said a statement that also named the ambassadors of Canada, Italy and Spain and embassy staff from Belgium, Bulgaria and Germany.

The statement said Syria "still believes in the importance of dialogue based on principles of equality and mutual respect" and that diplomacy is a "necessary tool" for countries to resolve disputes.

"We hope that those countries which initiated this step will adopt the same principles, allowing for relations to be normalised," it added.

A slew of mainly Western countries expelled Syrian diplomats in the wake of the massacre in late May of at least 108 people near the central town of Houla, one of the worst atrocities in the country since an uprising erupted in March 2011.

On the ground, troops and pro-regime militia backed by tanks went on a new offensive against rebels, seizing the central town of Kfar Zita after three days of bombardment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding rebel fighters had withdrawn.

Militiamen looted homes and shops after town residents fled, the watchdog said.

It said four civilians were killed overnight in a "huge military operation" in the Kfar Oweid area of Idlib, a province bordering Turkey that is a stronghold of rebel forces.

The foes also clashed in several other areas of the province in northwest Syria, said the Britain-based Observatory.

The monitoring group said districts of the flashpoint city of Homs, also north of Damascus, came under artillery fire "as part of a campaign by regular forces to destroy them completely."

In Latakia on the Mediterranean, two rebel fighters were killed in an attack by regime troops on the town of Al-Hafa, the group said. It said one of those killed was an officer who had defected from the regular army to join insurgents.

"Clashes in and around Al-Hafa are ongoing, and regime forces are attacking the town with heavy machinegun fire and mortar shells," the Observatory's head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

-- Houla collateral damage --

=============================

The watchdog said gunmen assassinated an army colonel in front of his home in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

The latest clashes came after the military suffered major losses to the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) over the weekend which announced it was resuming "defensive operations" because of the failure of a UN-backed April 12 ceasefire.

According to the Observatory, at least 92 soldiers have been killed since Sunday.

On Monday, it said, government forces attacked rebel strongholds in Idlib province and in and around Deir Ezzor as violence across the country claimed at least 35 lives.

A Syrian opposition group, meanwhile, announced they are creating a new military structure consisting of 12,000 fighters to topple the regime.

On the diplomatic front, China was hosting summit talks with Russia, which like Beijing has blocked UN Security Council condemnation of the Syrian regime for its bloody crackdown on dissent that has cost thousands of lives.

Russian President Vladimir Putin began talks with President Hu Jintao Tuesday ahead of a meeting with Hu's likely successor Vice President Xi Jinping on Wednesday.

In talks in Saint Petersburg on Monday with Putin, EU President Herman Van Rompuy said the European Union and Russia "might have some divergent assessments" of the situation in Syria.

But he said they agreed that implementing the troubled peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was the only way forward.

China's ambassador Li Baodong said the Houla massacre had dealt a huge blow to Annan's mediation mission, as Beijing took over the UN Security Council for June.

Annan is to discuss the Syria crisis at the Security Council on Thursday and in talks with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington on Friday.

Chinese UN envoy Li told reporters, without signalling any easing in China's opposition to sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad: "The political process to solve the Syrian crisis is at a crossroads."

The Houla massacre "has caused collateral damage to Annan's mediation effort. And also it presents a huge challenge to the international community," Li said.

As international coordination picks up pace, a US State Department official is to visit Moscow this week to discuss the Syria crisis, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said.

As many as 2,400 of the more than 13,500 people killed since the uprising began have died since the UN-backed ceasefire was supposed to come into force last month, according to the Observatory.

Copyright AFP (Agence France-Presse), 2012

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