Syria accepts cease-fire; fighting enters Lebanon

Assad's troops push into north Lebanon to hit rebels; Annan says Syrian reply to peace plan is "positive."

March 27, 2012 12:07
3 minute read.
Syrian soldiers (illustrative)

Syrian soldiers gather near Deraa_311. (photo credit: Reuters)

BEIJING/BEIRUT - Syria has accepted a cease-fire and peace plan drawn up by UN and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan, his spokesman said on Tuesday, even as Syrian troops thrust into Lebanon to battle rebels who had taken refuge there.

Annan conceded he faced a "long and difficult task" in ending the fighting, as rebel group leaders meeting in Turkey weighed how to unite their fractured movement and boost foreign backing for a year-old revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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On a visit to Beijing, Annan told Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that global cooperation with China and other countries was the only way to defuse the conflict, whose sectarian dimensions have raised fear it could spread and destabilize the wider region.

"I indicated that I had received a response from the Syrian government and will be making it public today, which is positive, and we hope to work with them to translate it into action," Annan told reporters after meeting Wen.

Annan's spokesman confirmed the Damascus had accepted the six-point peace plan, which the UN Security Council has endorsed and Annan called an "important initial step."

Annan said it dealt with "political discussions, withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance being allowed in unimpeded, release of prisoners, freedom of movement and access for journalists to go in and out.

"We've had very good discussions about the situation in Syria and they (China) have offered their full support," he said. "They're going to work with me and the other members of the Council to ensure that the six-point plan is implemented.

"So we will need to see how we move ahead and implement this agreement that they have accepted," said Annan.

The former UN secretary general, who flew to China from Russia, was trying to persuade Assad's two most powerful allies to help advance his proposal which, crucially, does not insist on Assad stepping down right now - unlike previous plans which Moscow and Beijing vetoed at the Security Council. Arab leaders were expected to endorse it later this week at a Baghdad summit.

Annan appealed for Beijing's support and advice, according to a pool report. "And I know you've already been helpful but this is going to be a long difficult task and I am sure that together we can make a difference," Annan told Wen.

Syrian troops thrust into Lebanon

Underlining his uphill challenge, Syrian troops advanced into north Lebanon, destroying farm building and clashing with Syrian rebels holed up there, residents said.

They said Syrian forces crossed a few hundred meters into Lebanese territory. A security source in Beirut said clashes had taken place near the poorly marked border but did not confirm Syrian troops had entered Lebanon.

Shells hit north Lebanon last week and residents say Syrian troops have briefly crossed the frontier while pursuing fleeing rebels in recent months.

"More than 35 Syrian soldiers came across the border and started to destroy houses," said Abu Ahmed, 63, a resident of the mainly Sunni Muslim rural mountain area of al-Qaa.

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Another resident said that the soldiers, some traveling in armored personnel vehicles, fired rocket-propelled grenades and exchanged heavy machinegun fire with rebels. He said soldiers destroyed one house with a bulldozer.

The Lebanese army blocked off the area, where hundreds of Syrian refugees -- some of them active members of the rebel Free Syrian Army -- have fled a year-long revolt by mostly Sunni Muslim Syrians against Assad, a member of his country's Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Residents said the Syrian troops remained 200-500 meters inside Lebanese territory.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have been killed in Syria's upheaval over the past year. Syrian authorities blame foreign-backed terrorists for the violence and say 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

Western and Arab governments which would be glad to see Assad ousted are wary of what might replace the 40-year-old family dynasty and its ruthless but predictable police state.

Security appears to be fraying in many parts of Syria despite repeated army offensives to regain rebellious territory. Activists said the government was struggling to hold such areas for long, with rebels swiftly re-emerging, as they have in Homs.

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