UNITED NATIONS: Syria has agreed to "immediately" start pulling troops out of protest cities, UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said Monday but Western nations quickly expressed doubts that the new promises would be kept.
Annan said President Bashar al-Assad's foreign minister had agreed to complete a troop and heavy weapon withdrawal by April 10, US ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after a UN Security Council meeting on the Syria crisis.
Syria's UN envoy, Bashar Jaafari, confirmed the April 10 date had been agreed "by common accord" between Annan and his government.
Annan told the Security Council however that "no progress" has been made yet reaching a ceasefire, diplomats said.
And in announcing the new deadline, the US ambassador said the United States and other countries doubted that Assad would carry out the new commitments.
"Past experience would lead us to be skeptical and to worry that over the next several days, that rather than a diminution of the violence we might yet again see an escalation of the violence. We certainly hope that is not so," Rice said.
Annan briefed a closed meeting of the 15-member council by videoconference from Geneva on his efforts to halt the Assad government assault against protesters and opposition groups. The UN says more than 9,000 have died in the violence of the past year.
The Syrian foreign minister, Walid Muallem, had written to Annan on Sunday agreeing to the new deadline, Rice told reporters.
Muallem "said the Syrian military will begin immediately and by April 10 will complete the cessation of all forward deployment and use of heavy weapons and will complete its withdrawal from population centers," Rice said.
She added that Annan's deputy Nasser al-Qudwa is in contact with Syrian opposition groups to get them to halt hostilities within 48 hours of government forces carrying out their commitments.
Annan had wanted an earlier deadline, Rice added, "But he urged the government of Syria to start immediately and to ensure that forces move no further into population centers, and as he related that commitment was provided by the Syrian authorities."
Annan also called on the council to support the April 10 deadline and to start considering the deployment of a UN-backed observer mission in Syria if fighting is halted. Members of Annan's team are to go to Damascus this week to discuss a possible observer mission.
Sending a UN mission would require a Security Council resolution however and a new diplomatic standoff is likely over any attempt to impose a deal on Assad which could hold up council backing.
Arab, Western and other nations at a Friends of Syria meeting on Sunday called for a deadline to be set, but Russia, Syria's last major ally and a permanent member of the Security Council, has rejected the calls.
"Ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters," Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.
Lavrov said the peace plan would not work unless rebel forces also agreed to halt hostilities.
Russia and China have already blocked two resolutions on Syria, using their powers as permanent members of the Security Council.
Annan went to Damascus this month to meet Assad for talks and has since regularly pressed the Syrian government to start moves to halt the violence.
The Syrian president has accepted Annan's plan but so far made no move to carry it out. Assad's government has insisted there has to be peaceful conditions before it can halt its operations in protest cities.
The Syrian ambassador said there were no preconditions for the April 10 accord with Annan. But he added: "We are expecting Mr Annan and some parties in the Security Council to get the same kind of commitments" from the opposition.
Jaafari also lambasted Gulf nations and Turkey for holding Sunday's meeting on Syria and offering to pay the salaries of Syrian opposition groups. He said it was "a declaration of war."