The United Nations Security Council has agreed a full statement on the humanitarian disaster in Syria for the first time since August last year.
Expressing its "gravest concern at the deteriorating situation", the Security Council agreed to support UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan's plan for a ceasefire.
It also expressed its "profound regret" over the "deplorable humanitarian situation" the country.
Stopping short of condemning President Assad or calling for political change, which had been a sticking point for permanent members Russia and China, allies of Syria who have vetoed resolutions on the situation previously, the statement did admit "further steps" may be necessary.
It also demanded that the Syrian government stop its attacks first - a significant victory for the Western powers.
Such "presidential" statements are usually non-binding and are not resolutions, but do require unanimous support.
In an editorial the Moscow Times claimed that Russia had begun the process of "abandoning" President Assad after a series of damaging leaks appeared to prove he was not serious about implementing diplomatic reforms.
Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi he was "encouraged by the united support of the Security Council".
US ambassador Susan Rice said: "We urge the Syrian authorities to respond swiftly and positively."
FULL TEXT: Read The Security Council Statement Below
In the text the Security Council called for "an immediate end to all violence and human rights violations" and "secure humanitarian access".
It also called for "a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs, including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition".
Some opposition groups have already rejected dialogue with the Assad regime, however, claiming the attacks on civilians prove that no guarantees made by his officials can be trusted.
The violence in Syria has escalated again in recent days after intense fighting, including in the country's capital Damascus.
Video footage released on Wednesday showed evidence of mortar attacks in cities across Syria including Homs and Hama.
One clip, embedded below, purported to show a historic castle in Hama being bombed by a government mortar shell:
Another video showed a tank aiming at a man with a camera and firing. It was reported that this took place in Hama, but again it was not possible to independently confirm that fact:
Demonstrations were also recorded in the cities of Aleppo and in One activist speaking on Al Jazeera said that evidence of a mass slaughter of 42 women and children by government troops had been found in Homs, though this was not independently confirmed.
One activist speaking on Al Jazeera said that evidence of a mass slaughter of 42 women and children by government troops had been found in Homs, though this was not independently confirmed.
Meanwhile the Syrian Red Crescent said that at least 200,000 people had been internally displaced during the violence.
Accurate figures as to the total numbers of people made homeless, killed or injured in the fighting are difficult to verify because of government imposed restrictions, but the UN says that at least 8,000 people have been killed since the uprising began in March 2011.
"The Security Council recalls its Presidential Statement of 3 August 2011 and its Press Statement of 1 March 2012.
"The Security Council expresses its gravest concern at the deteriorating situation in Syria which has resulted in a serious human rights crisis and a deplorable humanitarian situation. The Security Council expresses its profound regret at the death of many thousands of people in Syria.
"The Security Council reaffirms its strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria, and to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.
"The Security Council welcomes the appointment of Joint Special Envoy for the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Kofi Annan, following the General Assembly resolution A/RES/66/253 of 16 February 2012 and relevant resolutions of the League of Arab States.
"The Security Council expresses its full support for the efforts of the Envoy to bring an immediate end to all violence and human rights violations, secure humanitarian access, and facilitate a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs, including through commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition.
"To this aim, the Security Council fully supports the initial six-point proposal submitted to the Syrian authorities, as outlined by the Envoy to the Security Council on 16 March 2012, to:
1) commit to work with the Envoy in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people, and, to this end, commit to appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy;
2) commit to stop the fighting and achieve urgently an effective United Nations supervised cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties to protect civilians and stabilize the country.
To this end, the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centres, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centres.
As these actions are being taken on the ground, the Syrian government should work with the Envoy to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism.
Similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism;
3) ensure timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting, and to this end, as immediate steps, to accept and implement a daily two hour humanitarian pause and to coordinate exact time and modalities of the daily pause through an efficient mechanism, including at local level.
4) intensify the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons, including especially vulnerable categories of persons, and persons involved in peaceful political activities, provide without delay through appropriate channels a list of all places in which such persons are being detained, immediately begin organising access to such locations and through appropriate channels respond promptly to all written requests for information, access or release regarding such persons;
5) ensure freedom of movement throughout the country for journalists and a non-discriminatory visa policy for them;
6) respect freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully as legally guaranteed.
"The Security Council calls upon the Syrian government and opposition to work in good faith with the Envoy towards a peaceful settlement of the Syrian crisis and to implement fully and immediately his initial six-point proposal.
"The Security Council requests the Envoy to update the Council regularly and in a timely manner on the progress of his mission. In the light of these reports, the Security Council will consider further steps as appropriate."
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