Thousands demonstrate in Syria as violence rages before ceasefire deadline


Tens of thousands of Syrians demanding an end to the regime took to the streets on Friday under fire from government forces, who pressed their campaign to pound rebel cities into submission, activists said.

As many as 48 people were killed by the Syrian forces on Friday mostly in Homs and Aleppo suburbs, Al Arabiya reported citing Syrian activists at the Local Coordination Committees (LCC).

The violence raged a day after international envoy Kofi Annan spoke of “alarming” casualties despite the regime accepting an Apr. 10 deadline to withdraw forces from protest hubs.

On its Facebook page, the Syrian Revolution 2011 activist group had urged Syrians to demonstrate in favor of arming anti-regime rebels, according to AFP.

The LCC said security forces shot at demonstrators in Duma north of Damascus, in the central city of Hama and in Idlib in the northwest.

Demonstrations were also reported in southern Deraa province, cradle of the revolt, the LCC said.

Others were staged at Qamishli in the northern Kurdish region and at Deir al-Zor in the east, as well as in Idlib province, said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The Britain-based Observatory also reported fierce battles in the villages of al-Tiba, Al-Qabu and Shniyeh in central Homs province.

It said the clashes erupted after loyalist militias opened fire on seven women, killing two and wounding four.

The Observatory said regime forces were pounding districts of Homs city and Rastan to the north, with searches under way in Damascus suburbs after a night of clashes with deserters in which three soldiers were killed.

“At least 5 tanks and 10 buses loaded with security men and Shabiha (pro-Assad militia) entered Duma,” one local activist told Reuters. “There has been shelling on Duma since the morning.”

In Rastan, an activist said Free Syrian Army rebels had confronted a morning tank thrust. “They blocked the advance and the Assad army left. Then artillery started,” he said.

Accounts of the violence are difficult to verify because Syria’s government restricts access to independent journalists.

Stepping up pressure

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council, including Russia and China, joined Annan in stepping up pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to implement a six-point peace plan.

It called on the “Syrian government to implement urgently and visibly its commitments” made to Annan to take the steps toward a cessation of hostilities, a statement said.

It called for Syria to start a two-hour daily pause in hostilities and to allow immediate humanitarian access.

The council also said that, depending on Annan’s progress reports, it will “consider further steps as appropriate.”

Damascus has agreed to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities by next Tuesday. Annan said that if this happens he will call for a complete halt to hostilities by “0600 hours Damascus time on Thursday Apr. 12.”

But Syria has said the number of what it calls terrorist acts has risen since the deal with reached with Annan.

“The terrorist acts committed by the armed terrorist groups in Syria have increased during the last few days, particularly after reaching an understanding on Kofi Annan’s plan,” said a letter sent to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Strong doubts

Western governments and the opposition say they have strong doubts Assad will comply, and Annan said he had no confirmation of a Syrian claim that troops had begun a partial withdrawal from Idlib, Zabadani and Deraa.

“Clearly the violence is still continuing. Alarming levels of casualties and other abuses continue to be reported daily,” he told the U.N. General Assembly.

That was echoed by Ban, who said “the violence and assaults in civilian areas have not stopped. The situation on the ground continues to deteriorate.”

Walid al-Bunni, who is close to the opposition Syrian National Council, said he doubted the government would implement the plan, claiming that would be suicidal.

“To apply the plan would mean to authorize peaceful demonstrations, and the number of them that would take place, in which millions of Syrians would participate, would mean the end of the regime,” Bunni told AFP in Cairo.

The Security Council has been badly divided on Syria, and the new statement was softened at the demand of Russia, a long-time ally of Syria that has nonetheless hardened its stance toward Damascus, diplomats said.

The U.N. says more than 9,000 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown on the year-old uprising. Activists say more than 10,000 people have died.

Syria’s U.N. envoy Bashar Jaafari said on Thursday Damascus was committed to the Annan plan but lashed out at several nations for supporting opposition groups.

“We need to get commitments from the Qataris, from the Saudis, from the Turks, from the French, from the USA, that Annan should be given a chance in order to succeed,” Jaafari said.

He demanded a crystal clear commitment from Annan that once the government ends violence “the other parties will do the same and will not fill the vacuum” caused by the withdrawal of Syrian forces.

Annan’s spokesman said on Thursday a U.N. advance team headed by a Norwegian general had arrived in Syria to discuss the eventual deployment of a U.N. supervising mission.

And Ankara urged the United Nations and international community to reinforce efforts to aid Syrian refugees after a record 2,800 people poured across the border in less than two days, taking the number in Turkey to 23,835.

To apply the plan would mean to authorize peaceful demonstrations, and the number of them that would take place, in which millions of Syrians would participate, would mean the end of the regime

Walid al-Bunni, SNC