Last updated: 10 April, 2012

No sign of peace as Syria troop withdrawal deadline dawns

Syrian forces shelled a village and sent reinforcements to another rebel bastion Tuesday, the day a UN-Arab plan to end 13 months of bloodshed is to take effect, monitors and activists said.

The forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad were shelling Marea, in northern Aleppo province, after taking up positions around the village, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based Observatory, told AFP by telephone that “army tanks were shelling Marea, while helicopters hovered” over the village.

Mortar shells struck villages in the central province of Homs, he said, adding that it was relatively calm elsewhere, after one of the deadliest days in the Assad regime’s crackdown on dissent.

Under the peace plan agreed with UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, the Syrian regime is supposed to withdraw its troops and armour from population centres on Tuesday ahead of a ceasefire on Thursday.

But Abdel Rahman noted that regime forces have yet to pull back from anywhere across the country on Tuesday, according to reports from witnesses on the ground.

And activists said that instead of withdrawing its forces, the Assad government was sending even more reinforcements into at least one other rebel stronghold, the besieged city of Rastan in central Homs province.

The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main opposition groups inside Syria, said “large military reinforcements” had arrived on the eastern outskirts of Rastan overnight.

The reports, which cannot be verified due to curbs on foreign media, came after one of the bloodiest days in Damascus’ crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests that has seen some people take up arms against the regime.

Monday’s violence cost the lives of at least 105 people, including 74 civilians, the Observatory said, taking the monitoring group’s death toll for the past three days to close to 300.

The violence also spilled over into neighbouring countries.

Gunfire from Syria wounded four Syrians and two Turkish staff at a camp across the border in Turkey, and killed a television cameraman over the frontier with Lebanon.

The incidents came on the eve of a visit by Annan to refugee camps on the Turkish border with Syria.

Some 25,000 Syrian refugees are currently in camps in Turkey’s three provinces bordering Syria, after fleeing the crackdown on dissent.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syria of a “clear violation” of common frontiers, while Lebanon demanded a probe into the cameraman’s shooting.

“It was a very clear violation of the border,” Erdogan told reporters on an official visit to Beijing. “Obviously we will take the necessary measures,” he was quoted as saying by the Turkish news agency Anatolia.

Washington rebuked Syria’s government for the border violence, and said Assad was showing no signs that his government was sticking by the peace plan after signing on to the deal last week.

“We certainly have seen no sign yet of the Assad regime abiding by its commitments,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

UN leader Ban Ki-moon made a final plea for Assad to stop attacks on civilians after Monday’s clashes.

“The secretary general reiterates his demand that the government of Syria immediately cease all military actions against civilians and fulfill all of its commitments made through joint special envoy Kofi Annan,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The truce plan has been under a cloud for days since Damascus said it would keep its side of the bargain only if rebels gave written guarantees they would also stop fighting, a condition rejected out of hand by the rebels.

Amid the clashes, China urged Syria to honour its commitments and to implement the peace deal.

“China urges the Syrian government and parties concerned in Syria to seize the important opportunities, to honour their commitment of ceasefire and withdrawal of troops,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem was in Moscow Tuesday for talks in a bid to persuade Russia to maintain support for the Damascus regime. Russia and Beijing blocked two UN Security Council draft resolutions condemning Damascus for its bloody crackdown.

On Sunday, the Syrian foreign ministry outlined the regime’s new conditions that put the peace deal in doubt, namely written guarantees from the rebels of a ceasefire and pledges from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who oppose the Damascus regime that they would stop backing the rebels.

Annan will travel to Syria’s ally Iran on Wednesday, a day after travelling to Turkey for a visit to Syrian refugee camps near the border.

“I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable,” Annan said on Sunday.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011, while monitors put the number at more than 10,000.