BEIRUT - Syria promised to observe a UN-backed ceasefire starting on
Thursday, but its forces kept up fierce attacks on opposition
neighborhoods in the hours before the deadline.
A Syrian defense ministry source quoted on state television on Wednesday
said the army would halt operations on Thursday morning, but would
confront "any assault" by armed groups.
UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said the Syrian government had also
assured him it would stop fighting by the dawn deadline he has set for a
cessation of hostilities.
It agreed "to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as
of 6 a.m. Thursday, while reserving the right to respond
proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups
against civilians, government forces or public and private property",
Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said in a statement, quoting a letter from
the Syrian Foreign Ministry.
Russia, a powerful defender of President Bashar Assad against Western
and Arab pressure, said the rebels battling to oust him must honor the
Insurgents, who lack a clearly coordinated command structure, have
previously said they will stop shooting if Syrian forces pull back and
observe the truce as promised. But few in the Syrian opposition believe
Assad has any intention of complying with Annan's plan to end 13 months
At least 12 people were killed on Wednesday, activists said.
Western powers, too, have scorned Assad's truce pledges, but so far lack
an effective policy to curb the bloodshed, given their own aversion to
military intervention and the resistance of Russia and China to any UN
Security Council action.
"Far from fulfilling their commitment, the regime has cynically
exploited the window of diplomatic negotiations to crack down even
harder on its own people," British Prime Minister David Cameron said
during a visit to Indonesia.Role of the international community
UN action would need the support of Russia and China, which have blocked
previous Security Council draft resolutions on Syria, citing concerns
about a Libya-style intervention that would breach Syrian sovereignty.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to seek a policy change from one of Assad's few foreign friends.
"We will have another go at trying to persuade the Russians that the
situation is deteriorating and the likelihood of regional conflict and
civil war is increasing," she said.
China expressed "deep worries" about the violence in Syria and called for all sides to respect a ceasefire.
Turkey, hosting nearly 25,000 Syrian refugees, said Foreign Minister
Ahmet Davutoglu would discuss the Syria crisis with counterparts from
the Group of Eight major nations on Wednesday evening, via a video
Ankara has urged the Security Council to adopt a resolution that would
protect the Syrian people, saying Damascus had not kept its troop
withdrawal pledge and had increased the violence.
Annan said his plan, endorsed by the Council, must be given a chance to work.
"If everyone respects it, I think by 6 in the morning on Thursday we
shall see improved conditions on the ground," he said in Tehran, where
he was asking Syria's staunchest regional ally to support his efforts.
But the Syrian military has stayed on the offensive, pursuing assaults
on several anti-Assad strongholds, instead of pulling back, as Annan's
plan required them to do on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, an activist in the city of Hama said at least 20 armored
vehicles had moved into two central neighborhoods, while an opposition
supporter in Rastan, between Hama and Homs, said heavy shelling of the
town began after the announcement by the Syrian government that it would
respect the ceasefire.
The SOHR said two people were killed in army raids in Deir al-Zor in the
Euphrates river valley far to the east. Artillery shelled the Jebel
Akrad area in the coastal province of Latakia.
In Deraa, cradle of the revolt against four decades of Assad family
rule, activists said troops backed by armored vehicles had flooded the
city and were making house-to-house raids.Kofi Annan speaks in Tehran
Annan, at a news conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar
Salehi, urged Iran to help resolve the violence and warned of
"unimaginable consequences" if it worsened further.
Salehi said Syrians should be able to have free elections contested by
political parties, but reiterated Iran's opposition to any outside
interference in Syria's affairs and made clear the Islamic Republic
wanted Assad to stay in charge.
"The opportunity must be given to the Syrian government to make changes, under the leadership of Bashar Assad," he said.
Iran has unstintingly backed Syria, the only Arab nation to support Iran
in its 1980-88 war with Iraq and the conduit for Iranian arms to
Lebanon's Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
Syria, where Assad's Shi'ite-rooted Alawite minority dominates a Sunni
Muslim majority, has become an arena for a sectarian-tinged regional
contest between Shi'ite Iran and Sunni Arab rivals aligned with the West
and led by Saudi Arabia.
Assad's forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the past year,
according to a UN estimate. Damascus says rebels have killed more than
2,600 soldiers and security personnel.