By Tarek Amara
HAMMAMET, Tunisia (Reuters) - China's foreign minister said on Thursday his country was keeping faith with mediator Kofi Annan's peace plan for Syria, sidestepping calls for tougher action after the killing of more than 100 people in the town of Houla.
China, along with Russia, has for months blocked efforts to take more robust action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the United Nations, but the massacre last week in Houla prompted an outcry and fresh calls for a more decisive response.
Senior Arab officials used an Arab-Chinese cooperation forum, attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, to try to persuade Beijing to change its stance, though without apparent success.
"We continue to support Annan's efforts ... We knew from the beginning that his path would not be strewn with flowers," Yang said at a news conference after the forum.
He said China felt pain and sadness about the events in Houla and wanted an investigation to track down the culprits.
"The attack at Houla shows that stopping the violence and the deaths is a priority which can no longer be delayed," he said. "Annan's efforts are facing difficulties but no one can deny that they are making progress in some respects."
Annan's plan envisages a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons from urban areas and talks on a political transition. Syrian rebels say incidents such as the massacre in Houla demonstrate the plan has failed.
The Arab world itself is divided about how to respond to the violence in Syria, but those states in the more hawkish camp pressed their case on the Chinese minister at the forum, in the Tunisian seaside resort of Hammamet.
"We greatly respect the efforts of China to find a solution in Syria," said Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah.
"But we hope it will redouble this effort to stop the machine of violence and death and to put more pressure on the Syrian government to respect its commitments under the Annan plan," he said.
Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a former political prisoner swept to power in last year's "Arab Spring" revolution, said inaction could lead eventually to foreign military intervention in Syria, something which Russia and China oppose.
"China could play a decisive role in halting the suffering of the Syrian people and closing off the option of military intervention by pushing for a scenario similar to the one in Yemen," Marzouki said in a speech to the forum.
Like Syria, Yemen saw a wave of protests inspired by the "Arab Spring." There, a negotiated solution was found under which President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 33 years, stepped down in February.
The massacre in Houla, which killed 108 people, many of them children, was one of the deadliest incidents in months of violence in Syria, where Assad's administration has used force to put down opposition protests.
U.N. peacekeepers said the Syrian army and militiamen supporting Assad were probably responsible for the massacre in Houla. The government denied any responsibility and blamed Islamist "terrorists".
Western states expelled senior Syrian diplomats, but any decisive response through the U.N. is still stymied by Russia and China. As permanent members of the Security Council, they have the power of veto.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Andrew Heavens)