Former United Nations chief Kofi Annan, on a difficult peace mission to Syria, held a second day of talks with President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday as Syrian forces pursued a drive to crush rebel bastions in the northwest.

A U.N. spokesman said the two men had resumed talks at the presidential palace. He gave no details, but said Annan was expected to leave Syria for Qatar when the meeting concluded.

Annan, joint envoy of the United Nations and Arab League, appeared to make little headway on Saturday in a candid and comprehensive meeting with Assad, who blamed the bloodshed on terrorists seeking to destabilise Syria.

The Syrian state news agency SANA said he told Annan Syria would help in any honest effort to find a solution to a year-long conflict that has cost thousands of lives.

But there was no sign he had accepted what a U.N. spokesman said were Annan's proposals for a ceasefire, humanitarian aid access, release of detainees and a political dialogue.

Syrians involved in a popular uprising against Assad say there can be no meaningful dialogue with a leader who has inflicted such violence and suffering on his own people.

Annan met Syrian religious leaders, including the mufti, the senior Sunni Muslim authority, and the Greek Orthodox Christian patriarch, on Sunday before he saw Assad again.

Annan's mission has coincided with a Syrian military offensive against opposition strongholds in the northwest.

Three soldiers and a civilian were killed in fighting in the village of Janoudiya in Idlib province on Sunday morning, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Its British-based director, Rami Abdulrahman, said Idlib city was quieter after Saturday's tank-led assault, suggesting outgunned rebels had withdrawn or decided not to confront the army, which has launched an offensive in the northwest after recapturing insurgent strongholds in the city of Homs last week.

The Observatory said 39 civilians, including 25 in Idlib province, were killed on Saturday, along with 39 rebels and 20 government soldiers, giving an overall death toll of 98.

ARABS CHIDE RUSSIA, CHINA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who met Annan in Cairo on Friday, told the Arab League his country was not protecting any regime, but did not believe the Syrian crisis could be blamed on one side alone.

He called for a ceasefire and humanitarian aid access, but Qatar and Saudi Arabia sharply criticised Moscow's stance.

Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has led calls for Assad to be isolated and for Syrian rebels to be armed, said a ceasefire was not enough. Syrian leaders must be held to account and political prisoners freed, he declared.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said shortcomings in the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have twice vetoed resolutions on Syria, had allowed the killing to go on.

Their position, he said, gave the Syrian regime a licence to extend its brutal practices against the Syrian people.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are both ruled by autocrats and espouse a strict version of Sunni Islam, are improbable champions of democracy in Syria. Riyadh has an interest in seeing Assad fall because this could weaken its Shi'ite regional rival Iran, which has been allied with Syria since 1980.

International rifts have paralysed action on Syria, with Russia and China opposing Western and Arab calls for Assad, who inherited power from his father nearly 12 years ago, to quit.

The United States has drafted a fresh U.N. Security Council resolution, but Washington and Paris have said they are not optimistic it will be accepted.

Despite their differences, Lavrov and Arab ministers said they had agreed on the need for an end to violence in Syria.

They also called for unbiased monitoring of events there, opposition to foreign intervention, delivery of humanitarian aid and support for Annan's peace efforts.

But the exiled opposition Syrian National Council ruled out talks while Assad is in power.

Negotiations can never take place between the victim and torturer: Assad and his entourage must step down as a condition before starting any serious negotiations, it said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will meet Lavrov in New York on Monday when the Security Council holds a special meeting on Arab revolts, with Syria likely to be in focus.

(Writing by Alistair Lyon; Editing by Sophie Hares)