Last updated: 4 May, 2012

UN monitors claim they have calming impact as 22 Syrian troops die

Thousands of Syrians rallied on Friday, braving regime gunfire to show their determination to oust Bashar al-Assad, as the office of international envoy Kofi Annan said his peace plan is “on track.”

The demonstrations came as forces cracking down on dissent reportedly killed at least 26 civilians only hours after UN peacekeepers urged Damascus to make the first move to end nearly 14 months of bloodshed.

“The Annan plan is on track and a crisis that has been going on for over a year is not going to be resolved in a day or a week,” the UN-Arab League envoy’s spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told journalists in Geneva.

“There are signs on the ground of movement, albeit slow and small.

“Some heavy weapons have been withdrawn, some heavy weapons remain. Some violence has receded, some violence continues. And that is not satisfactory, I’m not saying it is,” Fawzi said.

On Friday, protesters emerged from mosques after weekly prayers across the country, calling for President Assad’s ouster, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

It reported six people killed across Damascus by government forces.

Among Friday’s casualties were a couple and their child shot dead in the northern city of Aleppo, scene of a bloody regime raid the day before in which four university students died.

Another 200 students were arrested in what the Observatory said could prove a turning point of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria’s second city and commercial hub, largely spared the violence so far.

Troops also shot at demonstrators in various other cities and towns, activists said.

Opposition activists had called for the protests under the rallying cry: “Our commitment (to the revolution) is our salvation.”

Anti-regime demonstrations have been staged after prayers each Friday since the revolt against Assad’s iron-fisted rule erupted in March 2011.

Amateur video posted on YouTube by activists showed demonstrators in Irbin, a town in Damascus province, carrying a banner that read: “Dear observers, thank you for your visit and goodbye.”

The message was aimed at UN observers deployed in Syria to monitor the UN-backed ceasefire that went into effect April 12 but has failed to take hold fully.

“One year of killings and you still need observers to know the truth? Enough lies,” read another banner carried by protesters in a neighbourhood of the capital.

More than 600 people have died in violence since the truce, according to the Observatory.

Overall, the watchdog estimates that more than 11,000 people have been killed since the outbreak of the revolt against Assad’s regime.

Abu Omar, an activist in the Damascus region, told AFP via Skype that it was clear government troops were not intimidated by the presence of UN observers.

“The security forces seem very much at ease with the situation, as though they’ve been given the green light to go on with the crackdown,” he said.

He added that in some regions around the capital, government checkpoints had been beefed up rather than drawn down, as called for by Annan’s six-point plan which also allows for free protests.

Major General Robert Mood, who heads the UN mission to oversee the hard-won ceasefire agreement, had issued an appeal late Thursday for the Assad regime to make the first move to end the violence.

“The strongest party needs to make the first move,” he told reporters in Syria, stressing he was referring to the government and army.

“They have the strength, they have the position and they also have the potential generosity to make the first step in a good direction,” he said.

The official SANA news agency said observers on Friday visited Latakia on the coast, the northwest Idlib province, the central city of Hama and the village of Tal Kalakh near the border with Lebanon.

Meanwhile, almost a week after the Lebanese navy intercepted three containers of weapons destined for Syria, the president of Lebanon said Beirut will not be a “base” for weapons smuggling.

“Lebanon is not a base to smuggle weapons to Syria,” Michel Sleiman told reporters. “There are no military bases in Lebanon against Syria, nor do gunmen enter Lebanon from Syria.”

Lebanon’s official National News Agency said a military prosecutor filed charges against 21 people accusing them of involvement in “purchasing and transporting large quantities of weapons and ammunition… from Libya to northern Lebanon in order to carry out terrorist activity.”