Syria wants guarantees to pull troops from cities

ALBERT AJI BASSEM MROUE Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syria demanded "written guarantees" Sunday that its opponents will lay down their weapons before the government withdraws troops from cities, derailing a U.N.-brokered truce that was supposed to start in two days.

In a statement Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi said reports that Damascus would pull back its troops by Tuesday were "wrong." He said that U.N. and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan has failed so far to submit to the Syrian government "written guarantees regarding the acceptance of armed terrorist groups to halt violence with all its forms and their readiness to lay down weapons."

Annan said last week that Syrian President Bashar Assad had accepted a deal calling for government forces to withdraw from population centers Tuesday, to be followed by a full cease-fire by both sides by 6 a.m. Thursday.

The truce was meant to pave the way for negotiations between the government and the opposition to end the country's year-old crisis, which the U.N. estimates has killed 9,000 people. Street protests against Assad erupted 13 months ago, inspired by the Arab Spring's pro-democracy uprisings in the region, but the revolt has turned violent in the face of a brutal regime crackdown.

Makdessi said that Syria will not allow a repeat of what had happened during the Arab League's observer mission in Syria in January, when the regime pulled back its armed forces from cities and their surroundings, only to see rebels flood the areas vacated by government troops.

"Armed terrorist groups used this to rearm its elements and spread its authority on entire districts," Makdessi said.

Damascus-based activist Maath al-Shami said he is not surprised by the latest government stance because "whenever the regime pulls out its troops and tanks, people will march to Damascus and topple the regime. Frankly speaking, the regime will collapse if checkpoints are removed."

Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, did not immediately return calls for comment.

On Thursday, a U.N. statement raised the possibility of "further steps" if Syria doesn't implement the six-point peace plan outlined by Annan, which Assad agreed to on March 25. The statement called on all parties, including the opposition, to stop armed violence in all forms in 48 hours after the Syrian government fully fulfills the measures.

With the deadline looming, Syrian troops on Sunday pounded restive regions in the north and center of the country a day after activists said more than 100 people were killed across Syria.

Some of the heaviest fighting Sunday was taking place in the central city of Homs, where government troops fired mortar rounds at the rebel-held neighborhood of Khaldiyeh, said activist Tarek Badrakhan from Homs.

"Mortar rounds are falling like rain," Badrakhan told The Associated Press via Skype as explosions could be heard in the background. He said troops were attacking on three fronts the rebel-held areas Deir Baalbeh, Khaldiyeh and Old Homs.

Badrakhan added that regime forces and army defectors were clashing in the Deir Baalbeh neighborhood, which Assad's forces have been trying to storm for days.

An amateur video posted online Sunday showed what it said were shells hitting a residential area in Homs' neighborhood of Qusour as thick smoke billowed from the area.

"They are giving the regime permission to kill and commit massacres," said Badrakhan referring to the cease-fire. He added that people have not been able to bury the dead in Khaldiyeh because of the shelling. He said that 40 bodies are piled in a room in a makeshift hospital, and that activists are trying to keep the bodies cold by directing a fan toward them so that they won't decompose quickly.

"We might have to bury them in public gardens," he said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said intense clashes occurred in Homs' Qusour, where defectors were able to kill four government soldiers and damage an armored vehicle.

In the northwest, the Observatory said dozens of army vehicles are taking part in an attack near the town of Jisr al-Shughour. It said explosions were heard in the area Sunday morning as military helicopters flew over the targeted areas. The group also reported clashes between troops and defectors in several towns in the northern province of Aleppo.

Activists also reported raids in the Damascus suburbs of Darya, Douma and Beit Jin. Activist Mohammad Saeed in Douma said troops were conducting raids in the area, opening fire in the streets and breaking into homes where they detained young men.


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Aji reported from Damascus, Syria.