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Middle East

Cross-border gunfire bodes ill for Syria truce

KILIS, Turkey: A U.N.-brokered peace plan scheduled to take effect Tuesday all but collapsed Monday as the conflict in Syria spilled across two borders and activists said Syrian forces pounded major cities, killing dozens.

A Lebanese cameraman was killed in gunfire allegedly from Syrian forces that fired into Lebanese territory close to the border with Syria, while at least five people were injured when Syrian forces fired across the border into a refugee camp in Turkey.

The incidents, on the eve of a scheduled Syrian army withdrawal, bolstered fears that the uprising could spark a broader conflagration in the region.

Under the plan, brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, Syria was to have started pulling troops out of towns and cities by Tuesday, paving the way for a cease-fire to take effect Thursday.

But President Bashar Assad’s government introduced Sunday a last-minute demand – saying forces cannot withdraw without written guarantees from opposition fighters that they will lay down their arms.

Syria’s main rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, rejected the government’s demand for a written guarantee, but said it would abide by its promise under Annan’s plan to stop fighting – as long as the regime does too. The United States Monday dismissed Syrian demands for written guarantees that rebels would lay down arms as a stalling tactic. “This is just another way to stall for time,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.

The Obama administration also said it was “outraged” over attacks on refugees saying it bodes ill for the U.N. backed plan.

Syria’s opposition and Western leaders had been skeptical all along that Assad would live up to his commitment to a truce because he broke similar promises in the past and escalated attacks on opposition strongholds leading up to the deadline.

Early Monday, Syrian forces fired across the border into a refugee camp next to the Oncupinar border post near the provincial center of Kilis in Turkey, wounding at least five people, authorities said. The soldiers were apparently firing at rebels who tried to escape to the refugee camp after ambushing a military checkpoint, according to the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said two Syrian citizens and two Turkish officials had been wounded when the camp came under fire from the Syrian side. Local authorities, however, put the number of wounded at four Syrians and two Turks.

“Syrian citizens who have fled the violence by the current Syrian regime are under the full protection of Turkey,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We will certainly take necessary measures if such incidents reoccur.”

It added that the Syrian chargé d’affaires in Ankara had been summoned to the Foreign Ministry.

Turkey hosts some 24,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army defectors, and has floated the idea of setting up a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people across its border becomes overwhelming.

Annan is scheduled to visit refugees at the border Tuesday, while prominent U.S. senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman are also expected to pay a visit to the camps, Turkish diplomatic sources told AFP.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the fighting along the Turkish border began before dawn Monday when rebel fighters attacked Syrian soldiers manning a checkpoint near the Turkish border, killing six soldiers.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for the Observatory, said the troops then kept firing as they pursued eight wounded rebels who escaped to the camp just across the border in Turkey.

The provincial governor, Yusuf Odabas, said five people had been wounded: three Syrians, one Turkish translator and one Turkish policeman.

The governor said Turkish military forces did not return fire.

Annan has been on a diplomatic push to rally support for his cease-fire deal. Annan has traveled to Moscow and Beijing, and he was expected in Tehran Tuesday on visits to Assad’s strongest supporters. Russia was hosting Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem Monday.

It is not clear whether Moscow will try to pressure Syria to comply with the cease-fire plan, though Russia said Monday it may send its observers to Syria as part of a potential U.N. monitoring mission.

Moscow is “working actively with Damascus in order to begin a political settlement process in [Syria],” state-run Itar-Tass news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying. “Attempts to force a solution on Syria from outside will lead only to an escalation of tension. Everything must follow from respect for Syria’s sovereignty, and violence must be stopped,” he added.

In violence across Syria Monday, activists said 79 people had been killed in Hama suburbs Idlib and Deraa. They said 30 people, mostly women and children, had been killed when Syrian forces bombarded al-Latmana, northwest of Hama.

And in the northern province of Idlib, activists said the Syrian army bombardment killed at least 115 people over two days, and troops also rounded up and shot 35 men during military operations in the region.

Syria has placed tight restrictions on media access, making it hard to verify witness accounts.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 10, 2012, on page 1.

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