UNITED NATIONS – The U.N. Security Council delayed a vote on a new Syria resolution until Thursday in a last-minute effort to get key Western nations and Russia to reach agreement on measures to end the dramatically escalating violence.
International envoy Kofi Annan urged the deeply divided council to delay Wednesday afternoon's scheduled vote after a bombing in the heart of Syria's capital killed the defense minister and his deputy, the brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was visiting China, also urged the Security Council to "take collective action, with a sense of unity."
Ambassadors from the five veto-wielding permanent council nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France — met behind closed doors Wednesday morning to discuss Annan's request. Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told reporters afterwards: "A possible vote has been postponed until tomorrow morning."
The key stumbling block to an agreement on a Syria plan is the Western demand for a resolution threatening non-military sanctions. It is tied to Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, which could eventually allow the use of force to end the conflict.
Russia, a close Syria ally, is adamantly opposed to sanctions and any mention of Chapter 7. Although Western nations appear to have little appetite for force, Russia fears a repeat of the NATO campaign in Libya and adamantly opposes any prospect of international intervention.
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointed to Wednesday's deadly bombing and accused the West of inciting the Syrian opposition, arguing that a proposed U.N. resolution amounted to support for the rebels and would lead to more bloodshed.
Supporting the Syrian opposition "is a dead-end policy, because Assad is not leaving voluntarily," Lavrov was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency on Wednesday.
After Wednesday's closed-door meeting by the five veto-wielding permanent council nations, U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice said it was a useful discussion but not a negotiation, and the Russians didn't propose anything new. France's U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud expressed hope the Russians would come up with something new but said he wasn't optimistic about Thursday's vote.
The mandate of the 300-strong U.N. observer force in Syria expires on Friday, and the Security Council must decide by then whether to extend it.
The U.S. and its European allies contend that the unarmed observers were authorized for 90 days to monitor a cease-fire and implementation of Annan's six-point peace plan — and with violence dramatically escalating, they insist that there must be consequences for non-compliance.
Britain's foreign secretary insisted on Wednesday that the bombing in Damascus underscored the urgent need for a Chapter 7 resolution.
"The situation in Syria is clearly deteriorating. All the members of the U.N. Security Council have a responsibility to put their weight behind the enforcement of ... Annan's plan to end the violence," William Hague said in a statement.
British Defense Minister Philip Hammond suggested that Russia and China hold the key to finding a peaceful solution because of their support for Assad.
During a Pentagon press conference with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Hammond said, "If those powers are sending clear messages about the limits of their tolerance for the activities of the regime, that will be an effective constraint on the activities of the regime."
Panetta said "it is more essential than ever" that the U.S. and the international community work through the U.N. to bring pressure on Assad to step down.
There has been a lot of diplomatic scrambling to try to get council unity, which would send a much stronger signal to Syria.
The Western draft resolution would impose non-military sanctions against Assad's regime if it fails to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from populated areas within 10 days — a key plank of the Annan plan. Moscow's rival proposed resolution calls for the "immediate implementation" of Annan's plan and guidelines for a political transition approved at a meeting in Geneva last month but makes no mention of sanctions.
Russia and China have incurred international criticism by twice vetoing U.N. resolutions to increase pressure on Assad.
A commentary that ran Tuesday in the official People's Daily newspaper strongly opposed using force against Syria — a sign that China may again block the Western-backed resolution. It said "a political solution is the only way out of the Syrian problem."
In New York, Syria's main opposition group urged Russia on Tuesday to support the Western resolution, saying it was the last chance "to breathe life" into Annan's peace plan.
Bassma Kodmani, a Syrian National Council spokeswoman, told reporters that if the Security Council fails to act, Syria's opposition will consider other options — which she did not disclose — to protect the Syrian people.
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev in Moscow, Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, and Gillian Wong in Beijing contributed to this report.