Assad backs plan after resignation call dropped

Britain announces more support for opposition groups; Fighting kills at least 22.

By REUTERS
March 29, 2012 19:35
4 minute read.
Assad meets UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan

Assad meets Kofi Annan 390. (photo credit: REUTERS/SANA/Handout )

 
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BEIRUT - President Bashar Assad said on Thursday Syria would spare no effort to ensure the success of international envoy Kofi Annan's peace mission but warned it would not work without securing an end to foreign funding and arming of rebels opposing him.

Assad is under international pressure to call his troops and tanks back to their bases, a year into a popular revolt against his rule. Fighting between troops and rebels killed at least 22 more people on Thursday, six of them soldiers.

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The state news agency SANA quoted Assad, in a letter to the leaders of the BRIC economic powers, which include his key ally Russia, as saying "countries which support the armed groups with money and weapons must be persuaded to stop this immediately".

At the same time, Britain said it was doubling non-military aid to opponents of Assad and expanding its scope to equipment, possibly including secure telephones to help activists communicate more easily without fear of detection and attack.

The aid, worth $800,000, "includes agreement in principle for practical non-lethal support to them inside Syria," Foreign Secretary William Hague said.

Arab leaders at a summit in Baghdad endorsed the peace plan floated by Annan, the special UN and Arab League envoy on Syria, and - betraying skepticism about Assad's commitment - called for it to be implemented "immediately and completely".

The six-point plan calls for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance, release of prisoners and free movement and access for journalists.



Arab League leaders quietly dropped an earlier demand that Assad give up the presidency. The Annan plan, endorsed by the UN Security Council, makes no such demand, unlike a previous plan that was vetoed by Russia and China.

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"The solution for the crisis is still in the hands of the Syrians as a government and opposition," Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby told the summit gathering in the Iraqi capital, the first there in 20 years.

Earlier, the League took a line closer to the hardline stance of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, calling for Assad to transfer powers to a deputy to allow for a unity government and early elections.

But a shift in the Arab position transpired after Russia and China vetoed a Security Council endorsement of that proposal and the Arab League's own observation mission in Syria was riven with internal splits and failed to stop bloodshed.

Syria's opposition groups continue to demand that Assad must go, and have not agreed to any peace talks with his government.

Assad's demands

"President Assad said that for his mission to succeed, Annan must focus on drying up the wells of support for terrorism pointed at Syria, especially from countries which have announced that they are arming and financing the terrorist groups in Syria," SANA reported.

"In return for the formal commitment to the success of Annan's mission it is necessary to obtain commitments from the other parties to halt the terrorist acts by the armed groups and to withdraw the weapons of these groups and call on them to stop their terrorist acts" Assad's letter said.

In an apparent reference to Turkey, a former ally that now hosts the rebel Free Syrian Army, he singled out "neighboring countries that harbor these groups and facilitate their terrorist operations".

Assad said a national dialogue would start soon, including "all groups which work for the security and stability" of Syria.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon kept up pressure on Assad, saying he must turn his acceptance of the peace plan into action, to shift his country off a "dangerous trajectory" with risks for the entire region.

"It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation, there is no time to waste," Ban told the Arab League summit.

The opposition meets its backers

In Istanbul, Syrian opposition representatives met to try to settle deep internal disputes before the arrival of Western foreign ministers for a "Friends of Syria" conference on Sunday to map out where the year-old uprising is heading.

The chances of Western powers deciding to arm the insurgents at this point appeared to be very remote.

Reports from the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the violence, said at least 16 people and six government soldiers were killed nationwide on Thursday - in army raids on villages, in a rebel ambush and in clashes.

SANA said two colonels were assassinated in a morning attack in Aleppo, Syria's second city, while on their way to work. It said gunmen kidnapped Air Force General Mohammad Amr al Darbas in Damascus province.

The United Nations says Assad's forces have killed 9,000 people. Damascus blames foreign-backed "terrorists" for the violence and says 3,000 soldiers and police have been killed.

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