Syria suggests it might not withdraw forces by deadline

Government wants assurances rebel groups will put down arms.

Syria will not commit to pulling its forces from cities only to have “armed terrorist groups” attack, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman said Sunday as opposition activists reported at least 69 deaths in the restive nation.

U.N.-Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan has said that he expects regime forces to withdraw its forces from urban areas by Tuesday, at which time rebel fighters would also adhere to a cease-fire, as part of a peace plan he helped broker.

But Jihad Maqdisi, a Syrian foreign ministry spokesman, said that is a “wrong interpretation” of Syria’s intentions, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.

While saying the Damascus government has acted in “good faith,” Maqdisi put the onus on Annan for the peace plan to proceed — saying the envoy “has not offered written guarantees to the Syrian government that the armed groups agreed to stop violence, nor has he offered guarantees that Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey will commit to stop funding and arming terrorist groups.”

And in a statement on state-run TV, Maqdisi said, “Syria will not repeat what happened during the (Arab League) mission, when it committed to the exit of its armed forces from the cities and surrounding areas, then the armed terrorist groups took advantage to arm its members and conduct all forms of terrorism.” The statement referred to an Arab League monitoring mission that took place several months ago.

At least 69 people were killed in fresh violence across the country Sunday, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria (LCC), a network of opposition activists.

That means 525 have been killed since President Bashar al-Assad agreed Monday to a complete withdrawal of Syrian forces by April 10, according to opposition activists.

Some of the worst violence Sunday was in Idlib, where the network reported 28 killed throughout the province (10 if them in the village of Sahel Roh) and that “the village of Bashira was entirely destroyed.”

Another 19 died in Homs province and 12 in Hama — with seven of the people killed there belonging to the same family — said the LCC. There were also five reported fatalities in Beit Jin outside Damascus, two in Daraa, two in Deir Ezzor and one in Aleppo.

Annan said in a statement Sunday that he was “shocked by recent reports of a surge in violence and atrocities in several towns and villages in Syria, resulting in alarming levels of casualties, refugees and displaced persons, in violation of assurances given to me.

“This is a time when we must all urgently work towards a full cessation of hostilities, providing the space for humanitarian access and creating the conditions for a political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people,” Annan said.

“As we get closer to the Tuesday 10 April deadline, I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable,” he said.

France’s foreign ministry used similar language in a statement Sunday, condemning what it described as “massacres perpetrated by the Syrian regime” and expressing “shock (about) the atrocities that continue to” happen within Syria.

Throughout the more than year-long uprising against the regime, the Syrian government has consistently blamed violence on “armed terrorist groups.” But U.N. and other world leaders have said the government is engaged in a violent crackdown.

Reports from Syrian opposition activists suggest government forces are slaughtering civilians in an attempt to wipe out dissidents seeking al-Assad’s ouster. The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for 42 years.

Rebel fighters have taken up arms, but their strength has often paled in comparison to the better-equipped regime troops.

“This regime is trying, as usual, to create obstacles preventing (the application of) any real and effective solution on the ground to stop the bloodshed,” said Abu Fares, the political representative of the Homs Revolutionary Council. “… We can’t lay (down) our arms because we don’t trust this regime.”

“We can’t drop our guns until the regime withdraws from the cities,” said Lt. Abdullah Odah of the Free Syrian Army, the armed Syrian opposition, in Istanbul. “We didn’t start the mass murder. The regime started it. It has to stop killing and then automatically we will stop.”

At least 127 people were killed Saturday, including 59 deaths in Hama, according to the LCC.

Syrian forces have been targeting civilians displaced from their homes by earlier fighting, the group said.

Specifically, the LCC said, the regime is attacking villages and farms around the eastern city of Rastan, where fighting a month ago forced out more than 80% of residents. They escaped to the nearby areas but are now coming under attack, the group said Saturday.

Syria said Sunday that the bodies of six “army and law enforcement martyrs” were buried.

CNN cannot independently verify reports of violence and deaths, as the government has severely restricted access to international media.

Annan’s six-point plan for Syria includes calls for a cease-fire by both sides and a Syrian-led political process to end the crisis.

On Sunday morning, SANA made little mention of any new violence but showed images of packed demonstrations that it said took place a day earlier.

Source: CNN

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