Syrian army offensive jeopardizes U.N. deal on deadline day


Syria faced a deadline on Tuesday to withdraw its forces from urban areas to comply with a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, but regime troops were accused of massacres in the early hours which rounded off a previous day of shelling villages and firing across frontiers.

Violence across the country on Monday left at least 160 people dead, according to the Syrian Revolution General Commission.

Syrian tanks shelled the central city of Hama in the early hours of Tuesday morning, an activist said, as tanks continued to patrol the streets.

“At 2 a.m. we heard two shells fall and the sound of tanks moving around the streets,” Manhal Abu Bakr, an activist and citizen journalist told Reuters.

“There is no gunfire now. They shell us at night so that it is hard to film,” he said over Skype. Internet video footage, which Abu Bakr said was filmed in Hama overnight, showed nighttime explosions in a built-up area.

In Douma, a suburb of the capital Damascus, another activist said tanks were still in the streets on Tuesday morning. Security force shelling in a village in a northern Aleppo province was also reported.

Many have cast doubts over the possibility of Syria complying with the ceasefire deal, including Washington, which said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had shown no sign so far that his government was sticking by the peace plan after signing on to the deal last week.

“We certainly have seen no sign yet of the Assad regime abiding by its commitments,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

Turkish officials have also voiced their concern.

“April 10 has become void,” Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru said, referring to the deadline.

Ankara, Assad’s former ally and now a foe, deplored shooting that wounded five people in a refugee camp inside Turkey - in the border area which Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, is expected to visit on Tuesday.

In Damascus, Assad said nothing on Monday about whether he would honor his undertaking to international envoy Kofi Annan, who has been overseeing the Syria peace mission, to start withdrawing government forces from urban areas on April 10 - the deadline that diplomats say appears to give him until midnight Syrian time, or 2100 GMT, on Tuesday to comply.

Assad’s demand on Sunday for written guarantees of good faith from the rebels - which their leaders rejected out of hand - as well as the hostile actions of Syrian troops on the ground, fueled doubts that Annan’s schedule for the full truce to start by 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday, April 12, would be respected.

Syria was to have started pulling troops out of towns and cities by Tuesday to pave the way for a ceasefire to start 48 hours later.

Another neighbor, Lebanon, condemned the killing of a local journalist by Syrian soldiers firing over the border.

The shots fired from Syria at a Syrian refugee camp inside Turkey were a “clear violation” of the common border between the two countries, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday.

“It was a very clear violation of the border,” Erdogan told reporters in Beijing, where he is on an official visit. “Obviously we will take the necessary measures,” he was quoted as saying by the Turkish news agency Anatolia.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: “These incidents are just another indication that the Assad regime does not seem at all willing to meet the commitments that it made to Kofi Annan.”

She derided Assad’s new condition for a truce as “chaff” to “stall for time” and said there was “no indication” of his forces preparing to withdraw.

Opposition activists in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, accused troops of mounting an offensive that had killed dozens this week, including young men rounded up and executed. Other anti-Assad groups said the army shelled a village near the central city of Hama, killing 30 people, including women and children.

“The world gave Assad a deadline,” said activist Mohammad Abdallah. “But he sees it as an opportunity.”

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed 9,000 people in 13 months, while Assad’s government says rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers and security personnel.

Government curbs on the media limit independent reporting from inside Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was “alarmed by the reports of continued violence and human rights violations in Syria, which resulted in an increased flow of refugees into neighboring countries,” his office said on Monday. “The timeline for the complete cessation of violence endorsed by the Security Council must be respected by all without condition.”

Failure to end the violence would turn attention back to the diplomatic stalemate that has left Western and Arab powers on the one hand and Assad’s friends in Russia, China and Iran on the other all calling for calm. But they are sharply at odds over how that might be achieved and how Syria would be governed from then on.

Annan takes action after deadline expires

Kofi Annan will send a letter to the Security Council Tuesday on Syria, where a deadline for military to withdraw from urban areas has expired, his spokesman said.

“Mr. Annan will be sending a letter to the Council later today,” spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told AFP.

Annan arrived in Turkey on Tuesday to pay a visit to refugee camps along Turkey’s border with Syria, which have accommodated an influx of fleeing Syrians in recent months.

“The letter will most probably include a notification to the Security Council that Syrian authorities have not abided by Annan’s plan, though Annan may have some difficulty stating this because he doesn’t have independent verification,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Center think tank in Doha and the former U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process.

“It is also interesting to see if he will ask for an observer mission, but questions remain over whether it will be the correct conditions to enter; Syria is a hot zone which is becoming increasingly dangerous and it is apparent that there is no ceasefire on the ground,” he added.

Shaikh also said that the Annan may push to call for further measures to be taken on the Syrian crisis, including “everything from sanctions to the establishment of safe areas in Syria. Annan needs to be engaged in coercive diplomacy.”

(Additional writing by Eman El-Shenawi)