Arab League leaders meeting in Iraq have pressed the Syrian government to act quickly on a UN-backed peace plan, as they met for a summit in the capital Baghdad.
Nine heads of state and UN chief Ban Ki-moon were among those attending the opening of the summit in the former Republican Palace on Thursday, the first such meeting in Iraq for 22 years.
Despite rigorous security arrangements, three explosions were heard in central Baghdad as the summit got under way.
Witnesses said that two blasts hit near the Iranian embassy at the edge of the fortified Green Zone. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
The city has been effectively locked down for the occasion, with 100,000 security forces on alert. Swathes of roads, air space and mobile networks have been shut down.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told Arab heads of state in the summit that "the solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition".
Pre-empting the meeting, Damascus said on Wednesday it would reject any initiative from the Arab League, which suspended Syria in November, and would deal only with individual states.
Ban kept up the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the six-point peace plan into action, to divert his country from a "dangerous trajectory" with risks for the entire region.
"It essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste," Ban told the summit.
The region's leaders are set to "denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and are in favour of a political solution via national dialogue," according to a draft copy of the Baghdad Declaration, to be issued after the summit.
Arab leaders have said, however, that the summit will not call for Assad to quit, and will not consider arming the opposition seeking to overthrow him.
The Emir of Kuwait was the lone head of state to attend from the six Gulf Arab nations.
The arrival of Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah marked the first visit by a Kuwaiti leader since Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1990.
Meanwhile In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a "Friends of Syria" conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.
More reports of violence
The latest diplomatic developments came as violence continued across Syria, with activists on Thursday reporting the death of at least 23 people.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, which has been under a relentless army assault since the start of the month, activists said that five civilians, including a woman and a child, died as regime forces stormed villages near the town of Maaret al-Numan.
Activists also said that three people died in nearby Hama province, along with two soldiers who were killed when their vehicle came under attack by armed fighters.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that an army colonel was assassinated by armed men in the northern city of Aleppo, where an officer was also killed on Wednesday.
The state news agency SANA on Thursday said the two officers were killed by an "armed terrorist group" as they were heading to work.
"Four terrorists in a car killed officers Abdel Karim Raie and Fouad Shaaban as they were heading to work," the agency said.
Clashes were also taking place near the town of Zabadani, a Damascus suburb.
A loud blast was reported in Harasta, also in the suburbs, and plumes of smoke could be seen rising near an army checkpoint.
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|Timothy V. Gatto|