Activists deny Syrian claim of pullback

BASSEM MROUE KARIN LAUB Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian troops shelled and raided opposition strongholds across Syria on Tuesday, activists said, denying claims by the foreign minister that regime forces have begun pulling out of some areas in compliance with a U.N.-brokered truce.

The main Syrian opposition group estimated that some 1,000 people have been killed in escalating regime attacks in the week leading up to Tuesday's withdrawal deadline, though such figures cannot be verified independently.

France and Britain accused Syria of deception and even Damascus ally Russia seemed critical of Bashar Assad's regime, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complaining that Syria's "efforts to implement the plan could have been more active and resolute."

Syrian opposition leaders said Tuesday they remain committed to the cease-fire brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, which requires Syrian forces to withdraw from towns and villages on Tuesday and both sides to cease all hostilities by 6 a.m. Thursday.

The truce is widely seen as the last chance for diplomacy, and its collapse could push Syria even closer to an all-out civil war.

The opposition as well as the U.S. and its allies have been deeply skeptical that the regime would comply with the cease-fire because it has violated previous agreements and stepped up attacks in recent weeks. At the same time, options for ending the fighting appear to be dwindling with the international community unwilling to intervene militarily.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero on Tuesday dismissed Syria's claims of a withdrawal as "a new expression of this flagrant and unacceptable lie." British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Damascus of using the cease-fire deadline "as a cover for intensified military efforts to crush Syria's opposition."

Opposition activists said Tuesday they've seen no signs of a troop pullback. "Soldiers are not being withdrawn from towns and villages," said Fadi al-Yassin, an activist in the Idlib province close to Turkey. "On the contrary, reinforcements are being sent."

Regime forces have used heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns against civilians, Bassma Kodmani, a spokeswoman for the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Council, told reporters in Geneva.

Kodmani estimated that some 1,000 people were killed since Annan announced the cease-fire timeline on April 2. "So every day is a very, very painful time that is given to the Assad regime," she said, adding the death toll was based on figures provided by various groups, including the Syrian Arab Human Rights Network.

Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, called for U.N. protection for civilians in Syria.

Syria restricts the access of foreign journalists, and claims about casualties cannot be verified independently. The U.N. has said previously it believes more than 9,000 people have been killed in the 13-month uprising against Assad.

Annan has not commented on the apparent breakdown of his plan, and his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, would only say Tuesday that it's up to the U.N. Security Council to decide what to do next.

As claims and counterclaims about Syrian truce violations flew across the region Tuesday, Annan toured a camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border where hundreds of Syrian refugees greeted him with chants of "Syria, Syria, Syria!"

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, reported shelling attacks and raids in several locations in the north, center and south of the country.

In the northern province of Aleppo, troops fired shells at the town of Mareh, said local activist Mohammed Saeed, adding that earlier in the week several residents of Tal Rifaat, another town in the area, were killed by shelling. A video posted by activist online showed about a dozen charred bodies inside a room said to be in Tal Rifaat.

In northern Idlib and central Hama province, troops backed by helicopters were firing heavy machine guns to try to flush out opposition fighters, said al-Yassin, the activist from Idlib. Regime forces detained residents and set four homes on fire in Idlib's Ariha village and a contingent of 50 army vehicles entered the town of Kfar Zeita in Hama province, he said.

The Observatory said troops also fired shells at two neighborhoods in the central city of Homs. Additional raids were reported in two southern villages, the group said. An activist in the Damascus suburb of Douma, said tanks were patrolling the streets, as they have in recent days. Some tanks bore graffiti reading "Assad's shield," he said.

In Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed the regime is complying with the truce deal.

"We have already withdrawn forces and army units from several Syrian provinces," he said in a joint news conference with Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister.

There were signs that the regime was stalling for time when it made new, last-minute demands over the weekend, saying it could not withdraw troops from towns without written guarantees that the rebels would lay down their arms.

"It should be everyone's working assumption that the Syrian regime will seek to draw out every step at every opportunity; it will assent and then object, repeatedly," said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Moallem appeared to raise another new demand, saying that the cease-fire must start simultaneously with the deployment of the international observer mission. The deployment of observers was one of the terms of Annan's plan.

And in another apparent shift, Moallem said Syria wants the truce guarantees to be issued by Annan, not by the opposition fighters.

"We did not ask for guarantees from armed terrorist groups that practice killing, take hostages and destroy infrastructure. We want guarantees from Annan," he said in Moscow.

The Syrian opposition has said it does not recognize the Assad regime and would not provide written guarantees.

Unlike previous peace plans, this one has the backing of Assad allies Russia and China because it did not call for the Syrian leader to step aside ahead of talks on a political transition.

But even Russia seemed to be losing patience with Damascus.

Lavrov said the Syrian government could have done more to comply with the plan, adding that "we spoke about it quite frankly" to Syrian officials.

Yet he also seemed to be trying to shift equal blame on the opposition for the difficulties in implementing the truce, repeating Russia's call for the West to pressure rebel fighters to halt violence. Russia and China have shielded Syria from U.N. Security Council condemnation in the past, arguing that only negotiations with the regime offer a way out of the crisis.

Lavrov also called for a speedy deployment of international observers -- including Russians -- in the country. Such a deployment is key to making a truce stick and a small contingent could be dispatched quickly, he said.

Sending U.N. observers currently posted on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel from Syria in 1967, was being discussed, he said.

The uprising against Assad's regime has turned increasingly militarized in response to a brutal regime crackdown. The fighting is also spilling across Syria's borders, raising the risk of a regional conflagration.

On Monday, Syrian forces opened fire across the Turkish and Lebanese borders, killing a TV journalist in Lebanon and two people in a refugee camp in Turkey. Several people were also wounded in the shooting.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday accused Syria of violating the border and said his country was considering what steps to take in response. He did not elaborate on possible measures.

Turkey, which has already given shelter to some 24,000 Syrian refugees, has floated the idea of creating security zones along its border, a step that could drag the Turkish military into the conflict.

Moallem on Tuesday accused Turkey of helping fuel the violence, saying it was hosting gunmen in training camps and allowing them to cross the border and smuggle weapons.

Asked about the possibility of a Turkish buffer zone on the border, he said that "Syria is a sovereign state and has the right to defend its sovereignty against any violation of this sovereignty."

___

Associated Press writers Frank Jordans in Geneva, Switzerland, and Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.