"I'm sorry, what was that you were saying about freedom and democracy?"
Poll announcement comes as former UN chief Kofi Annan presses for a response over ceasefire and aid proposals

The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose armed forces are engaged in a bloody crackdown on opponents of his rule, has called parliamentary elections for May.

The 7 May elections were announced under a new constitution passed last month. HAssad's opponents say the constitution is illegitimate while he still clings to power.

The announcement of elections, on a government website, came as the former UN chief Kofi Annan, who held talks with Assad at the weekend, said he was waiting for Syria's reply on "concrete proposals" for an immediate cessations to hostilities and allowing humanitarian aid into conflict zones.

"I am expecting to hear from the Syrian authorities today, since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider," Annan said. "Once I receive their answer we will know how to react."

The latest diplomatic moves came as a Syrian government-controlled media outlet claimed that the north-western city of Idlib had fallen to the army and as the United Nations issued a new estimate of the number of refugees who have fled during the year-long uprising, saying it had created at least 30,000 refugees, up 5,000 from figures given last month.

Syrian forces killed dozens of people near a mosque in Idlib, opposition activists said on Tuesday, and rebels killed at least 10 troops in an ambush of a checkpoint in the same area, which has been the focus of the latest government crackdown.

Video footage showed the bloodied bodies of several unidentified men strewn on the floor of the mosque. An unseen voice said it was impossible to move them due to heavy shelling.

Army defectors were responsible for the checkpoint attack, which killed 10 soldiers and possibly more, while rebels also killed 12 members of forces loyal to Assad in the southern town of Deraa, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Fighting was reported, too, in the eastern city of Deir al-Zor and in Syria's third largest city, Homs, as the uprising increasingly resembles a full-blown civil war.

The latest round of diplomacy emerged amid mixed messages on the Syrian crisis from Moscow, which said it would continue selling arms to Damascus. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, insisted that opponents of the Syrian government, as well as government forces, should stop fighting, and face equal demands to withdraw from their positions.

"This must be simultaneous," Lavrov said. "There must not be a situation where it is demanded that the government leave cities and towns and this is not demanded of armed groups."

Lavrov's remarks underscored a rift with western powers on the UN security council, who say Assad's government should take the first step.

Lavrov bluntly dismissed that demand, saying Assad's government would not accept it.

"A unilateral withdrawal of government forces is absolutely unrealistic," he said. "The Syrian authorities will not do this, whether we want it or not, and everybody understands this perfectly well."

Lavrov's comments followed private talks with the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, on the sidelines of a special UN security council meeting on the Arab spring uprisings on Monday. Clinton insisted: "First and foremost the Assad government has to end the violence. Once the Syrian government has acted, then we would expect others as well to end the violence."

Russia has shielded Syria, its last ally in the Arab world, from UN sanctions over the Assad regime's bloody suppression.