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GENEVA - World powers opened a crisis meeting on Syria Saturday with the West at odds with China and Russia over how to end 16 months of bloodshed and agree on a transition plan for the strife-torn country.
Before the talks started Britain pointed to persistent opposition from Beijing and Moscow to a transition deal, while the United States signalled differences, even though Russia put up an upbeat front on the meeting.
The divisions delayed by two hours the opening of the gathering of the foreign ministers of the five permanent Security Council states, the United States, Russia, Britain, China and France, as well as regional powers Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait and Iraq.
Before going into the main conference, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met her French and British counterparts, while the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers held separate talks.
International envoy Kofi Annan, who had convened the meeting, had circulated a proposal on a "Syrian-led transition" that could help save his peace process that has been largely ignored by both the ruling regime and opposition since it came into force on April 12.
Fighting has only intensified in recent weeks and rights monitors say violence killed 11 people across Syria on Saturday, and trapped hundreds more in Douma in Damascus province north of the capital.
Despite the urgency to end the violence that has taken over 15,800 lives since March last year, world powers were paralysed by a split over how a power transition could be organised in Syria.
Moscow and Beijing were against Annan's proposal which envisages handing over to an interim Syrian team that excludes those "whose continued presence and participation would undermine the credibility of the transition and jeopardise stability and reconciliation".
The wording appears to imply -- without saying so directly -- that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to relinquish his grip on power for the idea to succeed.
Russia insists that Assad's fate "must be decided within the framework of a Syrian dialogue by the Syrian people themselves."
British Foreign Secretary William Hague headed into the talks saying parties had been unable to bridge the gap.
"That remains very difficult and whether it will be possible, I don't know if this will be possible," he said.
Hague stressed that for Britain, "a stable future for Syria means Assad leaving power."
The US account of a meeting on the eve of the talks between Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also appeared to suggest little agreement on the future of Assad.
A senior US State Department official noted some progress while conceding that "there were still areas of difficulty and difference" between the two countries' approaches.
"But out of respect to Kofi Annan, they agreed we should all go to Geneva tomorrow to try to produce a result," the official said.
Lavrov saw it another way, saying he "detected a shift" in Washington's approach to ending the bloodshed that no longer involved a specific demand for Assad to leave.
"There were no ultimatums. Not a word was said about the document now being discussed in Geneva being completely untouchable," Lavrov told reporters in reference to wording that suggest no future role for Assad.
"I can confidently say that we have a very good chance tomorrow in Geneva to find a common denominator and mark a path forward," Lavrov added.
A conflicting message came from Lavrov's deputy, Gennady Gatilov, who tweeted early Saturday that experts in Geneva had thus far failed to agree to the wording of a final document on Syria because "the Western partners want to determine the political process themselves."
In an editorial published Saturday in Swiss newspaper Le Temps, Annan said that as the "conflict is between Syrians, it is up to the Syrians to resolve it.
"But it would be naive to think that they can, on their own, end the violence now and engage in a meaningful political process," said the former UN chief, who had conspicuously left Iran and Saudi Arabia off the Geneva guest list.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned of a "catastrophic humanitarian situation" in besieged Douma, which "has been subjected to a fierce military campaign since June 21."
Violence has killed "scores and wounded hundreds" there since regime forces escalated attacks on the outlying suburb of Damascus, the group said.
"More than 100 families remain in the town, unable to flee and forced to take refuge in shelters," it said.
An explosion also rocked the Qaboon district of Damascus on Saturday and another blast hit the country's second city Aleppo in the north. A further blast hit an oil pipeline in a rebel-held area of the eastern province of Deir Ezzor.
The latest violence came a day after 73 people were killed nationwide, among them 23 regime troops.