Syria has accepted a proposal crafted by United Nations-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, that aims to end bloodshed in the strife-hit country, according to reports, but Annan has cautioned that only the implementation of the measures will produce peace.

Annan views Syria's acceptance of the six-point plan "as an important initial step that could bring an end to the violence and the bloodshed, provide aid to the suffering, and create an environment conducive to a political dialogue that would fulfill the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement.

China also backed Annan's plan, which calls for a daily two-hour humanitarian cease-fire and access to all areas affected by the fighting in Syria, Annan told reporters after meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in Beijing Tuesday.

Annan said he received a similar commitment from Russia over the weekend.

"They have offered me their full support," Annan said after meeting with Wen. Annan has written to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad asking Damascus to "put [the plan's] commitments into immediate effect" and urged the release of people detained over the past year of the uprising, according to Fawzi.

"Mr. Annan has stressed that implementation will be key" for the Syrians, the region and the international community as a whole, Fawzi said. "As the Syrian government acts on its commitments, Mr. Annan will move urgently to work with all parties to secure the implementation of the plan at all levels."

Fighting Enters Lebanon

At least 13 people were killed across the country in clashes between regime forces and rebel troops, including near the border with Lebanon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Officials said the clashes spilled over into Lebanon as Syrian troops chasing rebels made a brief incursion into a sparsely populated area of northern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, Yakın Ertürk, one of three investigators on a UN panel documenting crimes against humanity in Syria, has resigned in protest at the Syrian government's refusal to allow them into certain areas of the country.

"The commission cannot do comprehensive work and investigate [certain] areas because of [a lack of] access, so I decided not to continue," Ertürk said.

Syrian state television SANA reported that al-Assad had inspected troops stationed in the flashpoint Baba Amr neighborhood of Homs city, the site of a fierce battle between regime forces and rebel troops that has left hundreds dead.

Damascus said in a complaint to the UN on Monday that armed "terrorist groups" in Syria had been receiving weapons from supporters in Lebanon and other states along the Syrian border.

Rebels, meanwhile, have been accused of using children as fighters in violation of international conventions banning the recruitment of child soldiers, Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative for children and armed conflict, said Monday in response to a question about Syria's rebels.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Tueday said it was "short-sighted" to think that the crisis in Syria would be solved if al-Assad agreed to Western calls to step down.

"To think that Assad's departure would mean the removal of all the problems is a very short-sighted position and everyone understands that if this happened the conflict would most likely continue," ITAR-TASS news agency quoted Medvedev as telling Russian reporters at a summit in Seoul. "The Syrian people, and not respected leaders of other states, make the decisions about Syria's fate."

Prime Minister To Warn Iran Over Syria, Iraq As Tehran Seeks Commerce Ties

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday for key talks expected to focus on Tehran's contentious nuclear energy program, as well as Syria and the sectarian tensions simmering in mutual neighbor, Iraq.

Erdoğan is expected to press Tehran to accept that regime change is inevitable in Syria and to reverse its steadfast support of President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish officials told Today's Zaman. The Turkish leader is also expected to air misgivings about the policies of Iraq's Iran-backed Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, which Ankara says are hardly constructive.

Iran, on the other hand, is likely to seek broadened cooperation with Turkey amid Western sanctions imposed as a means to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear program. Iran, according to Turkish sources close to Wednesday's talks, wants enhanced economic cooperation with Turkey that would pave the way for large-scale investments in Turkey funded by soaring oil and gas revenue.

With Iran facing United States and European Union sanctions due to its nuclear program, Turkey has emerged as one of the few valuable outlets for Iranian companies willing to circumvent sanctions. Iranian companies thus seek partnership with or the acquisition of Turkish businesses. According to the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, or TOBB, foreign companies financed by Iran in 2011 totaled 590, an increase of 41 percent compared to the previous year. That puts Iran on the top of the chart of new foreign companies established in 2011, not only in nominal numbers but percentage-wise as well.

"Sanctions are already taking their toll on Iran," said Sinan Ülgen, who heads the İstanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, or EDAM. Ülgen said Iran will feel the impact of sanctions even more deeply when a new round of sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports come into force on July 1.

Growing Iranian business activity in Turkey, however, has generated mixed reactions in Ankara. Some are concerned about the rise of Iranian-funded companies in Turkey, fearing this would lead to a clash between Turkey and the West, which seeks to punish Iran because of its nuclear policy. Another camp, on the other hand, says Ankara should seize this opportunity and deepen business ties with Iran.

Erdoğan, who flew to Tehran from Seoul, where he attended a summit of nearly 60 world leaders on nuclear security, said prior to his departure that countries should be allowed to pursue nuclear energy but called for "openness and transparency in all phases" in the process of acquisition.

Iran says its nuclear program is completely for peaceful purposes, while the US and Europe suspect that Tehran will eventually use it to develop weapons, a prospect which unnerves Iranian enemy Israel. Turkey has long offered to play the role of mediator between Iran and the West and is prepared to host a new round of talks between Tehran and the P5+1 group, consisting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. The talks are expected to take place in April, according to a recent report, but the P5+1 group reportedly wants to hold the talks at a European venue rather than İstanbul. Iran wants the meeting to take place in İstanbul. Though its calls for dialogue on Iran's nuclear policy have won Iranian praise, Turkey's clear anti-Assad position in Syria and complaints over the policies of the Shiite government in Iraq have recently strained Turkish-Iranian ties.

Turkey has bitterly criticized Assad's brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests and has raised the possibility of establishing a buffer zone inside Syria in the event of a massive influx of refugees.

Experts say Turkey's clear opposition to Assad, which puts Ankara in the same league as the U.S., Europe and Arab countries, is a major irritant in Turkish-Iranian ties and will remain so for the foreseeable future.

"It may not be possible for the Iranians to accept the Turkish policy," said Professor Hasan Köni of Kültür University. "Syria will continue to be a source of tension between Turkey and Iran."

But others point out that Turkey is unlikely to take its opposition to Assad a step further and launch any military action against the Syrian leader, meaning that tensions with Iran will not boil over. "A Turkish-Iranian clash over Syria is unlikely. But the rivalry will never end," said Nüzhet Kandemir of Bahçeşehir University. "The important thing is to keep this rivalry within limits."

Underlining the tensions, Turkey, which will host a gathering of the anti-Assad "Friends of Syria" coalition on April 1, has not invited Iran to the meeting. In Tehran, Erdoğan is expected to tell Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials that Assad is on a path of no return and ask Iran to stop supporting the Syrian regime.

Erdoğan is expected to insist that change of regime is inevitable in Syria and tell Iran that Tehran's image in the region will be damaged if clashes between Assad forces and the opposition turn into a protracted conflict, resulting in even more bloodshed.

Erdoğan will also express Turkish concerns over a reported transfer of weapons from Iran to Syria via Iraqi air space. Iraqi authorities have not been fully able to control the country's air space in the aftermath of the US withdrawal. For Ankara, it is unacceptable that Iran sees this as an opportunity to transfer weapons to the Syrian regime.

Ankara is also concerned about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's policies, saying they are neither constructive nor inclusive. Tensions between Iraqi Shiite and Sunni groups escalated further when Iraq's Shiite-led authorities issued an arrest warrant for Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in December on charges of running death squads, sparking a protracted political crisis. Hashemi has taken refuge in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish north since the incident.

Erdoğan is expected to insist in Tehran that tensions over Hashemi should subside, according to Turkish officials. Erdoğan's talks in Tehran come as Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani prepares to visit the U.S., reportedly to complain about the "destructive" policies of Maliki in the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal. Barzani is expected to express concern that the political integrity of Iraq is now at risk.

In addition to Ahmadinejad, Erdoğan will also meet with Iran's first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani. He will also inaugurate a Turkish culture center in Tehran during his two-day visit.

Syrian Dissidents Divided On Future Constitution

Syrian dissidents revealed the main principles of a future Syrian constitution at a meeting where all the opposition groups gathered on Wednesday, ahead of an international "Friends of Syria" meeting in Istanbul.

"The new Syria will be a democratic republic, based on constitutional life and sovereignty of law which [serves equally] the citizens regardless of their religious, national or intellectual backgrounds," said the draft statement revealing the principles of the future constitution, while some opposition groups criticized it harshly for the lack of any measures to be taken to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

Syrian dissidents from all ethnic and religious backgrounds and from all over the world came together in Istanbul on Wednesday with the aim of creating a common vision regarding the future of Syria ahead of an Friends of Syria meeting that will be held in Istanbul on April 1.

Around 200 Syrian dissidents from different opposition groups, including the National Change Current, Liberation and Construction Bloc, Kurdish groups, Turkmen Movement, and Syriacs, attended the meeting led by the most prominent opposition group, the Syrian National Council, and organized by the Turkish and Qatari foreign ministries in an effort to unite the Syrian opposition. The meeting was closed to the media.

The draft statement named the new authority that will be made by the Syrian dissidents the "Transitional Authority in Syria," adding, "the Transitional Authority in Syria is committed to holding multi-democrat free elections aiming to establish a parliament devoted to creating a new constitution."

'How Will The Bloodshed End?'

Not all of the Syrian dissidents were satisfied with the draft statement, however.

"This statement has no paragraph regarding the current situation in Syria. How will this bloodshed end? There should have been solid recommendations for the solution to the current crisis. There are only mentions regarding the future constitution. First you have to stop the massacres there," Tariq al-Said, chairman for foreign affairs of the Liberation and Construction Bloc, told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Spokesperson for the Syrian Revolution Coordination Union, Saer al-Haji, said they were not satisfied with the statement at all.

"Nobody thinks about the people that are being killed now. They talk about the future of Syria after al-Assad is gone. However, al-Assad is still there now and nobody speaks about bringing in NATO and stopping the bloodshed in Syria," al-Haji told the Daily News. Al-Haji also said Turkey and Qatar, the countries who invited the Syrian dissidents for the meeting, were supporting the Syrian National Council behind the scenes.

Leader of the National Change Current, Dr. Ammar Qurabi, said they would be submitting their own statement during the meeting because they thought the draft statement did not involve any solutions for the current crisis in Syria.

The final statement of the Syrian dissidents' meeting is to be submitted to the international "Friends of Syria" conference.

Turkey's Davutoglu Discusses Iran's Nuke Drive With EU's Ashton

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who accompanied Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the nuclear summit in Seoul, discussed Iran's nuclear negotiations in a phone conversation with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton on Monday, diplomatic sources said. The conversation came as Western diplomats said Iran and six world powers would meet April 13 for new talks about Tehran's nuclear program, despite disagreement over the venue.

Previous meetings' failures and disputes over the issues to be discussed were preventing an agreement on the venue. Three diplomats from Western nations accredited to the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, said the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China opposed Iran's choice of Istanbul because the last round of talks there 14 months ago ended in failure. They said, on the condition of anonymity, Iran, in turn, rejected Vienna because it is home to the IAEA, which is trying to probe allegations Tehran secretly worked on nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, Israel Tuesday played down the prospect of an imminent attack on Iran, saying its arch-foe's controversial nuclear program could still be set back by sanctions and sabotage. Moshe Yaalon, a senior deputy to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the mid-April talks would show "if there is a chance that the sanctions are working or that the Iranians are continuing to maneuver and advance toward a military nuclear capability." But asked during an interview with Israel's Army Radio if this meant the Netanyahu government might be just weeks away from launching a war against Iran, Yaalon demurred.

"No. Look, we have to see. The (Iranian nuclear) project is not static – whether that means progress, or sometimes, retreat. All sorts of things are happening there," he said.

"Sometimes there are explosions, sometimes there are worms there, viruses, all kinds of things like that," Yaalon said, suggesting setbacks plaguing Iran over the past three years, including the assassination of several of its scientists and the Stuxnet malware that stymied core computer systems, could be repeated.

Turkey's Education Quarrel Spills Onto Streets

Tens of thousands of people flocked to the streets of Ankara Tuesday to protest the government-backed education reform bill, only hours before it was set to be debated in Parliament, potentially igniting a fresh row between lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties.

The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, gathered more than 20,000 people in Tandoğan Square in Ankara, where it turned its weekly parliamentary group meeting into a rally, while some women's associations also protested the government outside Parliament.

Expected to last not less than a week, the parliamentary debate over the education reform bill, publicly known as 4+4+4, began late Tuesday afternoon, and group proposals from opposition parties were still being debated when the Hürriyet Daily News went to print.

Amid concerns the tension between the government and opposition over the bill, which would reshape the whole education system, could become even greater during the parliamentary debate and cause more fighting, President Abdullah Gül called for prudence and urged lawmakers to listen to each other.

"I hope the debate will take place in a climate in which everyone remains cool-headed and is able to say what they think," Gül said late Monday.

But CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu stressed his party will say "no" to a "dictatorship mentality."

"This bill is divisive. This is not 4+4+4. It is 8/2. It divides the society into two. If you break the foundation of a building into two pieces, it will be demolished. If you break eight years of mandatory education into two tiers, the result will be demolition. But those demolished by this will be our children," Kılıçdaroğlu said.

''No To Child Brides'

During the unprecedented group meeting, CHP supporters waved Turkish flags and carried banners saying "4+4+4: Not a solution to child brides" and "you cannot choose your profession at 10 years of age," while chanting slogans such as "shoulder to shoulder against fascism" and "One day the AKP will be accountable to the people."

Arguing the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, rushed the bill through Parliament's education commission "with a dictatorship mentality, similar to that of the Nazis," Kılıçdaroğlu said, "We will say no to both this dictatorship mentality and to the dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan."

The CHP leader said the children of poor families would suffer from the controversial bill, and their only opportunity to climb the social ladder is through education.

"Primary education is the only place that a rich child and a poor child can compete. There will be no such competition with tiered education. At the end of the first four years, when a child is 10, he or she will be asked to choose a profession. If he or she cannot decide, the government will say 'I have found a career for you; you will study for that,'" Kılıçdaroğlu said.

He also said the CHP is not against religious education, but the AKP uses religion for political gain.

"If you want to improve religious education, we are not against it. The CHP is respectful of all beliefs. We respect pious people, but we are against those who are revengeful and hypocritical. You [Erdoğan] are revengeful and hypocritical. You are using religion for your own political gain," Kılıçdaroğlu said.

Bagis Critical Of The CHP

European Union Minister Egemen Bağış played down the CHP rally and vowed the AKP would not back down on the bill.

"Let them gather at Tandoğan. The people will only laugh at them. The government will not give up on the educational needs of the nation just because some people are putting up a show and blocking traffic in Ankara," Bağış said.

Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli urged the AKP to drop the bill and agree to seek a compromise with the opposition. And he called on the CHP to "act calmly and cool-headedly in the spirit of democracy."

There were more protests as Parliament geared up to convene for the debate. Backed by CHP lawmakers, members of the Rightful Women Platform, Federation of Turkish Women's Associations and Eğitim-Sen teachers' trade union read out a press statement outside Parliament and signed petitions calling for the withdrawal of the bill.

The office of Ankara's provincial governor, meanwhile, said the demonstration against the bill called by Eğitim-Sen for Wednesday had not been authorized and warned the police would "definitely stop" the protest.

Brawls were sparked ahead of the debate on the bill, when AKP Deputy Oğuz Kağan Köksal said no one had the right to threaten the police, in response to a speech by Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, Deputy Altan Tan, in which he said the police used disproportional force during last week's disputed Nevruz celebrations, speaking of the assault on independent deputy Ahmet Türk.

Facing E-Coup Charges, Basbug Makes Show Of Defiance In Court

Turkey's former Chief of Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ left the courtroom where a hearing of the ongoing "Internet Memorandum" case was being held Tuesday, saying the trial was "frivolous," leaving after the court had him listen to a phone recording between Ergenekon suspects İbrahim Şahin and Fatma Cengiz, in which the two allegedly talk about him (Başbuğ).
The case continued following a break; Başbuğ, however, refused to answer questions directed by the chief judge.

"We had prepared several questions. However, we are going to keep our right to ask direct questions since he (Başbuğ) said he will not speak," prosecutor Mehmet Ali Pekgüzel said.

Başbuğ is charged with orchestrating propaganda efforts over the Internet to provoke political unrest in the country in accordance with the aims of the alleged Ergenekon gang. Başbuğ dismissed the indictment brought against him as a farce, challenged the authority of the court to try him and refused to issue his defense plea in the case on the "Action Plan to Combat Reactionism."

"The Supreme Council is where I ought to be tried. I faithfully served my country, nation, state and my armed forces throughout the 53 years I have been wearing the Turkish military's uniform with honor and pride. Accept this speech, not as a defense plea, but as a [statement] elucidating why I will not issue my defense plea in accordance with my legal rights," Başbuğ said Tuesday in an Istanbul court.

Turkey's former top general said he had never behaved unlawfully in his life and his allegiance to democracy was evident. Başbuğ also referred to the indictment against him as "a comedy of incompetence" during his five-minute defense.

"My sole worry is that my beautiful country and my beautiful people are drifting toward division and polarization due to various reasons, as many people of common sense have also pointed out," he said.

Başbuğ stands accused of orchestrating propaganda efforts over the Internet to foment political unrest in the country in accordance with the aims of the alleged Ergenekon gang in the "Internet Memorandum" case, which had earlier been merged with the investigation into the "Action Plan to Combat Reactionism."

"Are those who are accusing me [now] unaware that not a single Internet site was launched during my term of command, and that we also shut down existing ones? Are my accusers unaware that I would have unwaveringly ordered an investigation had I come across any criminal elements in the Internet Memorandum?" he said.

Başbuğ said it was unheard of anywhere in the world that a country's chief of staff would both serve as the head of his country's armed forces and as the leader of a terrorist organization.

"Unlike what some have thought and claimed, I endeavored with all my strength and laid down my entire material and moral being during my tenure as the army commander and the Chief of General Staff to eliminate the problem of terror that was brought down upon our country," he said. "I will not defend myself from now on, nor will I answer any questions."

Ergenekon is an alleged ultranationalist gang accused of plotting to overthrow the government by causing chaos in society.

Turkish Justice Ministry Says New Law Will End Bans On Newspapers

New regulations to prevent the closure of media publications and broadcasts are on the way, the Justice Ministry said Tuesday in a press statement that follows the controversial month-long ban on the daily newspaper, Özgür Gündem, amid bitter criticism from journalists' associations.

The Justice Ministry presented a bill to Parliament in January in order to create a freer environment for media publications and broadcasts and to forestall the risk of their closure, the statement said. Parliament's Justice subcommittee is currently reviewing the law package, better known in public as a bill intended to speed up judicial processes, after which time the package will move on to the General Assembly, according to the ministry's statement.

Alleged Links To PKK

An Istanbul court ordered the closure of the daily Özgür Gündem for an entire month on allegations that it "promotes a terrorist organization" on March 24. The daily, which closely monitors and reports developments related to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, already has 11 journalists behind bars due to their alleged links to the Kurdistan Communities Union, or KCK, the alleged urban wing of the PKK.

The daily's closure has also prompted sharp criticism from international press associations.

"We are appalled by the police raid and court suspension of Özgür Gündem and call on Turkish authorities to return confiscated copies and allow the daily to resume its work immediately," said Nina Ognianova, the Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists, or CPJ.

The New York–based CPJ also officially announced its outrage at the one-month suspension on its Web site.

"The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claims commitment to reform yet continues to use trumped-up charges to silence press outlets that cover sensitive issues. To be meaningful, pledges must be consistent with actions," the CPJ statement said.

The Turkish Journalists Association, or TGC, has also called the ban "a new blow" for the freedom of the press.

"The application of sanctions against media organs, such as closures, seizures and monetary fines cannot be vindicated in democratic countries," TGC's statement said. "Journalists are not terrorists; newspapers are not tools of terrorism either."

Turkey Promotes Sharing Of Experience At Nuclear Security Summit In Seoul

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promoted the safe use of nuclear energy and called on the international community to share its experience in providing nuclear security on Tuesday.

On the final day of a two-day international nuclear security summit in Seoul, South Korea, Erdoğan advocated the safe, peaceful use of nuclear energy. "We should take coherent measures in terms of nuclear security. We should share all the knowledge and experience we have on ensuring the safe use of nuclear energy for the benefit of the international community," he said.

The 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, attended by roughly 60 national representatives from Europe, Asia and the United States, facilitated detailed discussions on how international cooperation can be used to mitigate nuclear threats.

Erdoğan said nuclear disasters like those at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant in 2011, and in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in 1986, prove the crucial importance of nuclear security on an international scale.

Turkey, which Erdoğan said is nearing the implementation of its own nuclear energy program, supports the right of all countries that have met international criteria to efficiently use nuclear energy.

"Our target is to provide 10 percent of our electricity needs with nuclear power by 2030," said Erdoğan of Turkey's ambitious nuclear program. The prime minister maintained that Turkey will abide by the highest security standards based on the principles of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, when implementing its nuclear power program.

Nuclear terrorism is one of the most serious threats to global security and stability and the international community must take action against that threat, Erdoğan said.

Meanwhile, Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız said on Tuesday that the international community had asked for transparency with regard to Iran's nuclear program and during the IAEA inspections in Iran. Of Erdoğan's planned visit to Tehran on Wednesday, Yıldız stressed, "We will tell the Iranians to be transparent vis-à-vis their nuclear program."

Yıldız, who accompanied Erdoğan to Seoul, met with high level executives of the Korean SK, KOSEB and HACO companies over breakfast on Tuesday. A summit of energy leaders will take place in İstanbul in April with the participation of around 70 countries.

Urgent Action Required To Bring Syrian Tragedy To An End, PM Says

At a number of talks with state leaders and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday in Seoul, Erdoğan touched upon the Syrian tragedy taking place near Turkey's southern border. Erdoğan pleaded with world leaders to find an urgent solution within the scope of international law to quell the spilling of blood in the country.

"Human rights violations in Syria have come to an unbearable level. The world should not remain a mere observer of that tragedy," he stressed during his talks with Ban.

Erdoğan also met with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

Turkish Airlines Winds Down Operations In Syria

Turkish national flag carrier Turkish Airlines, or THY, has halted flights to Damascus and Aleppo due to ongoing violence and lack of security in the neighboring country.

A Turkish Airlines official says the company will suspend ticket sales Sunday, but flights to and from Damascus and Aleppo, Syria, will continue for those passengers who already have tickets.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity Tuesday because he was not authorized to make statements on behalf of the company. The announcement came a day after Turkey closed its embassy in Damascus and withdrew the ambassador, further isolating Syria.

Ankara Invites Paris To Friends Of Syria Meeting

Turkey has invited French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to participate in the "Friends of Syria" group meeting that will take place in Istanbul on April 1, sources have said, following speculation that Turkey might snub France.

Juppe has confirmed his attendance, a French official told the Hürriyet Daily News. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Saudi Arabia between March 30 and 31 and then come to Turkey between March 31 and April 1 for the meeting. After China rejected the invitation, Russia also declared Tuesday that it would not be participating in the gathering, saying that the meeting undermined United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's peace mission to Syria. Turkey responded cautiously to the Annan peace plan.

"We hope it succeeds," a Turkish diplomat told the Daily News, refraining to elaborate further.

Meanwhile, Turkey's Ambassador to Syria Ömer Önhon has returned home after the closure of the Turkish Embassy in Damascus. Önhon and his staff arrived Tuesday in the southern port of Mersin on a ferry from Beirut. Önhon said initiatives were under way regarding the Turkish journalists reported to be missing in Syria. It has also been announced that Turkish Airlines will stop all flights to the Syrian capital Damascus on April 1.

On the other hand, the government's policy on Syria came under renewed fire from the opposition, as the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, Devlet Bahçeli warned that the increasing turmoil could ultimately result in autonomy for Syria's Kurds.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's meeting with President Barack Obama in Seoul showed that "occupation preparations and the idea of slicing up Syria have matured," Bahçeli said at his party's parliamentary group meeting. "What must be meticulously thought through is the cost of an autonomous Kurdish administration that could emerge in eastern Syria along our border, following the one in Iraq."

Egyptians Prohibit Turks' Entry Into Gaza

Members of the Union of Turkish World Municipalities, along with a ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, deputy, were not allowed to enter Gaza at the Rafah border crossing by Egyptian authorities, the Doğan news agency reported Tuesday.

A Turkish delegation from the municipalities union was heading to Gaza in order to meet with sister municipalities and to determine humanitarian needs there, Lokman Çağırıcı, mayor of Istanbul's Bağcılar district told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Çağırıcı said only six people from the group had been allowed to enter Gaza, but four mayors, including himself and AKP Deputy Nihat Zeybekçi had not been allowed. Çağırıcı said they had waited six hours for approval.

"This is an arbitrary process. We are sorry that this [move] came from Egypt," Çağırıcı said, adding that they would soon make another attempt to enter Gaza.

Çağırıcı also said that he and other mayors did not need visas for entry, as they already had a green passport. Still, they had applied to the Egyptian authorities' beforehand and received permission to enter Gaza. Zeybekçi told a press conference that Egyptian authorities had told them that five people's names had not been approved, and were thus not allowed into Gaza

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