Activists deny Syrian claims of pullback

BASSEM MROUE KARIN LAUB Associated Press Published:

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian activists reported military attacks and arrest raids in several towns across Syria on Tuesday and denied claims by the foreign minister that regime forces have begun pulling out of some areas in compliance with a U.N.-brokered truce.

Activists said they have seen no signs of the large-scale troop pullback that President Bashar Assad committed to under the cease-fire brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Military forces were supposed to withdraw from towns and villages on Tuesday with both sides ceasing all hostilities by 6 a.m. Thursday.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero dismissed Syria's claims of compliance as "a new expression of this flagrant and unacceptable lie." Even ally Russia seemed critical of the regime.

"We believe that their efforts to implement the plan could have been more active and resolute," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

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.

Options for ending the fighting appear to be dwindling with the international community unwilling to intervene militarily.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said there were no indications the Syrian regime was pulling back forces. Instead, the group and activists in Syria reported shelling attacks and raids in several locations in the north, center and south of the country, it said.

"Soldiers are not being withdrawn from towns and villages," said Fadi al-Yassin, an activist in the Idlib province close to Turkey.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."

In northern Idlib and central Hama province, troops backed by helicopters were firing heavy machine guns to try to flush out opposition fighters, al-Yassin said. 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 the town of Mareh in northwestern Syria and at two neighborhoods in the central city of Homs. Additional raids were reported in two southern village, the group said. Mohammed Saeed, a resident of the Damascus suburb of Douma, said tanks were patrolling the streets, as they have in recent days.

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.

The opposition as well as the U.S. and its allies have been deeply skeptical that the regime would comply with the cease-fire, in part because Assad has violated previous agreements and his forces escalated attacks on opposition strongholds in the weeks leading up to the deadline.

There were also 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 that while it is ready to go along with the Annan plan, 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 critical of Damascus.

Lavrov said the government "could have been more active and decisive" in implementing it. He also called for a speedy deployment of international observers -- including Russians -- in the country.

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.

"The United States and other countries that have stable contacts with various Syrian opposition groups should not blame everything on Russia and China, but use their own influence to force everyone to stop firing in each other," he said.

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.

The 13-month 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. The U.N. says has claimed more than 9,000 lives.

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 is considering what steps to take in response, including measures "we don't want to think about." He did not elaborate.

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. Turkey "is hosting gunmen, giving them training camps, allowing them to cross the border and smuggle weapons," he said. "All these acts contradict Kofi Annan's mission."

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."

Later Tuesday, Annan was to visit the Turkish refugee camp where Monday's shooting took place.

Refugees in the camp were skeptical about making any deals with the Syrian leader, who has gone back on his word in previous failed truce efforts.

"We believe in Kofi Annan, but Bashar Assad is not trustworthy," said refugee Dalal Fezo. "He was given 10 days to pull back his troops but he didn't."

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AP writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.