UN envoy reports alarming casualties in Syria

EDITH M. LEDERER JOHN HEILPRIN Associated Press Published:

UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- International envoy Kofi Annan reported "alarming levels" of daily casualties in Syria as a U.N. team arrived in Damascus to negotiate the possible deployment of U.N. monitors for any cease-fire between Syrian troops and rebel forces.

Annan, the U.N.-Arab League envoy, said Thursday that Syria has informed him of partial withdrawals from three locations -- Idlib, Zabadani and Daraa -- "but it is clear that more far-reaching action is urgently required."

His comments came as activists reported that Syrian troops attacked the Damascus suburb of Douma, an assault they said shows that Syrian President Bashar Assad is intensifying violence in the days before the April 10 deadline to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns. Assad's crackdown on the yearlong uprising has left at least 9,000 people dead, according to the U.N.

Annan spoke to the U.N. General Assembly by videoconference from Geneva minutes after the U.N. Security Council called on Syria to "urgently and visibly" fulfill its pledge to halt the use of troops and weapons by April 10. It 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.

"All points of the plan are crucial, but one is most urgent: the need for a cessation of violence," Annan told diplomats from the 193 U.N. member states. "Clearly, the violence is still continuing. Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily. Military operations in civilian population centers have not stopped."

He said all opposition parties his team has talked to "are committed to call for cessation of violence once the Syrian government has demonstrably fulfilled its commitments regarding use of heavy weapons and troop withdrawals."

In planning for a possible cease-fire, a team led by Norwegian Maj. Gen. Robert Mood arrived Thursday in Damascus to begin discussing with the Syrian authorities "the eventual deployment of this U.N. supervision and monitoring mission," Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said.

He said the U.N. is looking for a team of 200 to 250 soldiers to monitor a cease-fire.

The deployment of U.N. monitors would first have to be authorized by the 15-nation Security Council.

While a halt to violence is a beginning, Annan stressed the importance of moving forward quickly on a Syrian-led political process including all parties to restore peace and "meet the aspirations of the Syrian people."

Annan has courted support for his six-point peace plan at meetings with leaders in Moscow and Beijing and now plans to visit Tehran on April 11, Fawzi said.

Russia and China have vetoed two Security Council resolutions condemning Assad's regime for the crackdown on protesters, and have ruled out any mention of possible sanctions against Syria.

Diplomats said Thursday's presidential statement was watered down at the insistence of Russia and China from a "demand" to a "call" on Syria to implement the April 10 deadline.

They also insisted that the word "verifiably" be changed to "visibly," the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because negotiations were private.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was not optimistic about a peace plan for Syria and is ready to push for stronger U.N. action if the deadline is not met. Assad "is deceiving us" when he promises to abide by the peace plan, Juppe said.

"If we manage to get 200 observers (and the other measures in the peace plan) in place, things will change dramatically," he told reporters in Paris. "If we don't manage to get this by April 12, we have to go back to the U.N. Security Council."

Syria's key ally Russia, has grown increasingly impatient with Assad, criticizing him for being slow at reforms and urging him to take the first step in implementing Annan's plan.

But Russia has vowed to block any U.N. resolution that could pave the way for a replay of what happened in Libya, where NATO action helped oust longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

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John Heilprin reported from Geneva. Angela Charlton contributed to this report from Paris.