Last updated: 6 April, 2012

Fighting rages as activists urge Syria protests

Tens of thousands of Syrian protesters took to the streets on Friday under fire from regime forces, who pressed their campaign to pound rebel cities into submission, activists said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 35 people were killed, including 11 in the flashpoint central province of Homs and the same number in the Aleppo region of northern Syria.

Twenty-two of those killed were civilians, it said, while nine soldiers and four deserters also lost their lives.

The latest violence came a day after another 77 people were reported killed and international envoy Kofi Annan spoke of “alarming” casualties despite the regime accepting an April 10 deadline to withdraw forces from protest hubs.

Fresh anti-regime rallies were also held in Kurdish areas of northern Syria, in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, and in Idlib province, which lies on the border with Turkey, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British-based Observatory.

Ankara urged the United Nations and international community to reinforce efforts to aid Syrian refugees after a record 2,800 people poured across the border in less than two days, taking the number in Turkey to 23,835.

An activist on the ground, Dib al-Dimashki, told AFP in Beirut by telephone that several marches were also held in districts of Damascus, including Midan, Issali and Mazzeh.

On its Facebook page, the Syrian Revolution 2011 activist group had urged Syrians to demonstrate in favour of arming anti-regime rebels.

The Local Coordination Committees group said security forces shot at demonstrators in Douma, north of Damascus, in the central city of Hama and in Idlib.

Large demonstrations were also reported in southern Daraa province, cradle of the revolt.

The Observatory reported fierce battles in the villages of Al-Tiba, Al-Qabu and Shniyeh in Homs province. The clashes erupted after loyalist militias opened fire on seven women, killing two and wounding four.

It said regime forces were pounding districts of Homs city and Rastan to the north, with searches under way in Damascus suburbs after a night of clashes with deserters in which three soldiers were killed.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council, including Russia and China, joined Annan in stepping up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to implement a six-point peace plan.

It called on the “Syrian government to implement urgently and visibly its commitments” made to Annan to take the steps toward a cessation of hostilities, a statement said.

It called for Syria to start a two-hour daily pause in hostilities and to allow immediate humanitarian access.

Damascus has agreed to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities by next Tuesday. Annan said that if this happens he will call for a complete halt to hostilities by “0600 hours Damascus time on Thursday April 12.”

But Syria said on Friday that the number of what it calls terrorist acts has risen since the deal with reached with Annan.

“The terrorist acts committed by the armed terrorist groups in Syria have increased during the last few days, particularly after reaching an understanding on Kofi Annan’s plan,” it said in a letter to UN chief Ban Ki-moon.

At the same time, Damascus lashed out at the UN high commissioner for human rights, accusing her of turning a blind eye to “terrorism” funded from abroad.

Citing a foreign ministry letter to Navi Pillay, state news agency SANA said her “bias against Syria has become evident as she turns a blind eye to terrorism targeting the Syrian people at the hands of armed groups with an external funding.”

Damascus has also demanded a written commitment that the opposition will not seek to exploit the withdrawal to make territorial gains.

Western governments and the opposition say they have strong doubts Assad will comply, and Annan said he had no confirmation of a Syrian claim that troops had begun a partial withdrawal from Idlib, Zabadani and Daraa.

“Clearly the violence is still continuing. Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily,” he told the UN General Assembly.

That was echoed by Ban, who said “the violence and assaults in civilian areas have not stopped.”

The Security Council has been badly divided on Syria, and the new statement was softened at the demand of Russia, a long-time ally of Syria that has nonetheless hardened its stance toward Damascus, diplomats in New York said.

A UN advance team headed by a Norwegian general had arrived in Syria to discuss the eventual deployment of a UN supervising mission, Annan’s spokesman said on Thursday.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown on the year-old uprising. Activists say more than 10,000 people have died.