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Clinton plea as Assad aide defects

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has pleaded once more for global sanctions against the Syrian regime after president Bashar Assad was rocked by the defection of a top aide.

Frustrated by the slow pace of diplomacy, Mrs Clinton accused Russia and China of standing in the way.

Her comments came as activists reported that Syrian forces killed at least 25 people, arrested scores of others and torched more than 100 homes while seizing the northern city of Khan Sheikhoun from rebels.

Speaking after a 100-nation conference in Paris, she said Syria's "regime insiders and the military establishment are starting to vote with their feet" by abandoning the four-decade Assad dynasty. She spoke after Western officials reported top Assad aide Brig Gen Manaf Tlass had left the country.

"Those with the closest knowledge of Assad's actions and crimes are moving away," she told reporters. "We think that is a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime."

Gen Tlass' departure from Syria provided welcome news for the US and its European and Arab partners after another gathering of the Friends of Syria group that demonstrated the international community's continued inability to end 16 months of brutal government repression and civil war that has killed some 14,000 people, according to activists.

The defection of Gen Tlass, a member of the elite Republican Guards and a son of a former defence minister, is the first major crack in the upper reaches of Assad's regime, which has remained largely cohesive throughout the uprising.

He has not spoken publicly since his defection and his whereabouts remain unknown, though French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the general was en route to France, where his sister lives. Mr Fabius later backtracked, saying he was not sure of Gen Tlass' final destination.

The gathering in France's capital aimed to win wider support for a Syrian transition plan unveiled last week by UN mediator Kofi Annan. Joined by America's allies, Mrs Clinton called for "real and immediate consequences for non-compliance, including sanctions," against the Assad regime.

But with neither Moscow nor Beijing in attendance, much remained dependent on persuading the two reluctant UN veto-wielding powers to force Mr Assad into abiding by a ceasefire and the transition strategy. Mrs Clinton urged governments around the world to direct their pressure toward Russia and China as well.

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