Syria violence kills 37, endangering truce deadline

Opposition groups say no sign of military pullout; Annan says "a bit too early" to dismiss his ceasefire plan as a failure.

Syria tank Homs 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria tank Homs 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BEIRUT - Syrian troops killed 31 people on Tuesday, pursuing a fierce assault on President Bashar Assad's opponents instead of silencing their big guns and leaving towns as promised under a fraying international peace plan.
United Nations-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan said it was "a bit too early" to dismiss as a failure his attempt to halt 13 months of conflict. "The plan is still on the table," he told a news conference in Turkey after visiting Syrian refugee camps.
The former UN chief's plan, which calls for Syrian troops to pull back by the end of the day on Tuesday, won backing from Assad's friends in Russia and China, as well as from Western, Arab and other nations struggling to find a way to deflect the Syrian leader from his bloody crackdown on a popular uprising.
Annan said he had information the Syrian military was withdrawing from some areas but moving to others not previously targeted. He appealed to all sides to stop violence and to set no conditions for a ceasefire due to start at dawn on Thursday.
"I had hoped that by now we would have been much further ahead along the road to the government of Syria honoring its commitments and all the parties beginning to take steps to end all violence," he said, reiterating Thursday's deadline. "We still have time between now and the 12th to stop the violence."
The worst bloodshed Tuesday was in the city of Homs, where shelling of opposition districts killed at least 26, activists said. Opposition groups said there was no sign of a military pullout, with tanks still in cities such as Homs and Hama.
Citing satellite images, a French foreign ministry spokesman endorsed that view and denounced a Syrian assurance that troops were, in fact, withdrawing as a "blatant lie".
Nor did rebels immediately stop shooting. The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said insurgents killed six soldiers in attacks on checkpoints on an eastern desert road.
As the end-of-day deadline loomed for Damascus to implement the ceasefire plan, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem demanded guarantees from Annan,that armed insurgents would also honor any truce.
"We will not ask the terrorist groups, which are killing, kidnapping and destroying infrastructure, for guarantees. We want Annan to give us these guarantees," Mouallem said in Moscow.
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The last-minute demand, a variant of one Syria made at the weekend, is not mentioned in Annan's proposals and looks designed to complicate his struggle to get all parties to comply with a six-point plan that is so far largely a dead letter.
The rebel Free Syrian Army will fight on if Assad fails to withdraw troops and tanks from in and around cities as required, a spokesman, Colonel Qassem Saad al-Deen, told Reuters.
The opposition Syrian National Council said a partial ceasefire was unacceptable and government forces should stop all violence on Tuesday. Its spokeswoman, Basma Kodmani, also told a news conference in Geneva that arrests, house demolitions and shelling by tanks and anti-aircraft guns were continuing.
The Local Coordination Committees, a grassroots activist group, said Assad's "corrupt criminal regime" was only trying to buy time to impose its will by force, and chided the United Nations and Arab League for failing to restrain Damascus.
The violence has alarmed Syria's neighbors, especially Turkey which already hosts almost 25,000 Syrian refugees. At least five people, including two Turkish citizens, were wounded by cross-border fire into a refugee camp in Turkey on Monday.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan accused Assad of personal responsibility for killing civilians and threatened an unspecified response to the cross-border shooting.
"He is continuing to kill 60, 70, 80, 100 every day," Erdogan said during a visit to Beijing. Assad's troops were "mercilessly" shooting fleeing women and children in the back.