Violence tears Syria despite ceasefire vow
Beirut, April 2, 2012
Syrian government forces bombarded opposition targets in the city of Homs on Monday despite President Bashar al-Assad's promise to international peace envoy Kofi Annan to cease fire and withdraw his tanks and artillery.
Annan, who met Assad in Damascus on March 10 to discuss his peace plan, was due to brief the UN Security Council in New York later on Monday on whether he had seen any progress towards its implementation.
'Today doesn't feel much different than yesterday or the day before, or the day before that,' opposition activist Waleed Fares said from inside Homs. 'Shelling and killing.'
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist operation which collates reports from around Syria, reported 70 people killed on Sunday, including 12 civilian victims of shelling and sniper fire in Homs.
Nineteen soldiers and 12 rebels were killed in clashes, it said.
Five people were killed on Monday in the central province of Homs. In Syria's second city of Aleppo, a bomb blast at a kiosk killed the owner, an Assad supporter, it said. At least two people were killed and eight wounded in army bombardments of villages in northern Idlib province, which borders Turkey.
Turkish officials said refugees were crossing the border at a rate of around 400 a day. Over 40,000 Syrians have taken refuge in neighbouring countries since the unrest broke out a year ago, according to U.N. figures.
Pro-opposition areas of Homs have been under assault from government forces since early February, making the city a symbol of the year-long uprising against decades of Assad family rule and galvanising international efforts to end the bloodshed.
Annan demanded last week that Assad immediately halt military action, and rebels of the Free Syrian Army rebels said they would stop shooting if he pulled heavy weaponry out of cities.
But Assad said he must maintain security in urban areas.
'It seems like the government took Kofi Annan's plan the opposite way round,' Fares said. 'Annan said to withdraw tanks, they bring more. He said to stop shelling, they shelled more.'
The United Nations says Syrian soldiers and security forces have killed more than 9,000 people over the past 12 months. Damascus says rebels have killed 3,000 troops and police.
Assad blames the unrest on foreign-backed 'terrorists' and has put forward his own reform programme, which his domestic foes and international opponents have dismissed.
On Monday, the official SANA news agency reported that plans for an election on May 7 were going ahead in which Syrians would be able to choose 'whom they see fit to represent them.'
That is unlikely to mute international efforts to force Assad out.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, said the Assad government had a long list of broken promises and would face serious consequences if it did not halt actions targetting civilians.
The US will provide communications gear to the opposition and was discussing expanding support with its allies, she said.
However Washington has shown little appetite for arming the rebels and is putting its faith for now in the Annan plan.
If that plan falters, the next steps from the international community could include a return to the U.N. Security Council for a firm resolution and to increase pressure on Assad's allies Russia and China to get tough on Damascus.
If Annan, a former UN chief and Nobel peace laureate, signals progress, diplomats say work could start on a resolution to send 200 to 250 unarmed U.N. observers to Syria to monitor an eventual ceasefire.
Ministers from the United States, Europe and Arab countries met as the Friends of Syria grouping in Istanbul on Sunday and said Assad did not have much time to meet his commitments to Annan, which include ceasefire, troop withdrawals from cities and access for humanitarian aid.
It left it to Annan to determine a timetable or what action to take if the killing went on.
Russia, China and Iran were absent, reflecting the divided international response to Syria's crisis.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Annan's plan should be judged by the U.N. Security Council and not by the Friends of Syria.
'The Security Council will judge who should implement his proposals, and how,' Interfax news agency quoted Lavrov as saying.
The Istanbul meeting made no mention of arming the Free Syrian Army, as advocated by some Gulf Arab states.
It recognised the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) as a legitimate representative of all Syrians but fell short of offering it full recognition, a reflection on the disunity of an opposition movement which includes civilian activists, armed rebels and political exiles.
Although Western powers have been wary of military intervention, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sounded an alarm bell, comparing the situation to Bosnia in the 1990s.
'In the case of Bosnia, the international community was too slow therefore we lost many people,' he said. 'In the case of Syria we have to act without delay,' he added.-Reuters