Middle East

Annan expects Syria truce by April 12 as fighting rages

DAMASCUS: UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan expects the Syrian government and the opposition to fully implement a truce by April 12, his spokesman said on Thursday, as fighting raged near the capital Damascus.

France however said that it is not confident Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will meet the April 12 deadline while Russia warned the West against using threats and ultimatums in its approach to Syria's regime.

"What we expect on April 10 is that the Syrian government will have completed its withdrawal from populated centres ... and then we begin a 48-hour period during which there will be a complete cessation of all forms of violence by all parties," Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva.

"So the clock starts ticking on the 10th on both sides to cease all forms of violence," he added.

The Syrian regime has told Annan that it has begun withdrawing troops from some parts of the country, said Fawzi, adding that "we are in the process of verification."

Annan said on Monday that President Bashar al-Assad had agreed to "immediately" start pulling his troops out of protest cities and complete a troop and heavy weapons withdrawal by April 10.

The pro-government daily Al-Watan however quoted a government official as saying Damascus is not bound by a deadline to withdraw its troops from strife-torn areas.

"There is no set date or deadline," the unnamed official said.

"April 10 is the date set for the beginning, not the end, of the withdrawal of troops and it does not constitute a deadline."

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there was no sign of troop withdrawals and to the contrary, regime troops backed by tanks Thursday launched fresh assaults on rebel strongholds, including a dawn raid on the town of Douma, near Damascus.

The Britain-based monitoring group said clashes between soldiers and rebel forces were reported in various parts of Douma, located 13 kilometres (seven miles) northeast of the capital.

Plumes of smoke could be seen rising near Douma's main mosque as troop reinforcements were sent in, the Observatory said.

Two young men were killed in Kfar Sousa, a neighbourhood of Damascus early Thursday when security forces opened fire on their car, it said.

Five soldiers were meanwhile killed in two separate attacks in the northern province of Aleppo and in southern Daraa, cradle of the revolt that broke out last year in March against Assad's regime.

Clashes were reported in several towns of Aleppo province, including Andan and Hritan where messages on loudspeakers urged regime troops to defect and join the opposition, the Observatory said.

Violence across the country has left at least 170 people dead so far this week, monitors said, as Washington slammed an "intensification" of violence against regime opponents.

Annan's spokesman said in Geneva that an advance team to pave the way for peacekeepers is expected to arrive in Damascus later Thursday.

They will "begin discussing with the Syrian authorities the modalities of the eventual deployment of this UN supervision and monitoring mission," said Fawzi.

The peacekeeping mission would therefore be "ready to move in as soon as we have a Security Council resolution," he added.

Meanwhile, Annan will also travel on April 11 to Tehran, where he is to seek support from the Syrian ally for his peace plan.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he had little confidence Annan's plan would end the violent repression of the popular revolt against Assad's rule.

"Can we be optimistic? I'm not," Juppe said told reporters in Paris.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West against issuing ultimatums to Damascus.

"Russia proceeds from a deep conviction that any steps around Syria should be aimed at facilitating the success of ... Kofi Annan's mission," Lavrov said in Bishkek.

"The Syrian government has accepted his proposals, has begun implementing them, and it is very important right now not to undermine this process through ultimatums and threats and unfortunately there are those who'd like to do that," he said.

The surge in violence has sent Syrians fleeing, with an official in Ankara saying on Thursday that more than 1,000 people had crossed the border in the past 24 hours, bringing to nearly 21,000 the number of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.

"A total of 1,043 Syrians made their way to Turkey in a single day, marking the highest figure in recent times," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The brutal crackdown on a popular uprising against Assad's regime has left more than 9,000 people dead since mid-March last year, according to UN figures.





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