New shelling overshadows Syria truce deadline

Syrian forces shelled protest hubs and deployed reinforcements, in apparent breach of a UN-backed peace plan, activists and monitors said, as Russia urged its ally to act more decisively to implement the truce.

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But Foreign Minister Walid Muallim said in Moscow that Damascus had started to carry out the plan tabled by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan by pulling some troops out of certain provinces.

A spokesman for Annan, who was visiting Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, said the former UN chief would send a letter to the Security Council later Tuesday, the day his peace accord was scheduled to begin taking effect.

On the ground, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shelled the villages of Marea and Hawr al-Nahr in northern Aleppo province, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Mortar shells also struck old quarters of the flashpoint city of Homs, it said, adding unidentified gunmen killed six soldiers in northeastern Hassakeh province.

Under the peace plan it agreed with Annan, the Syrian government is supposed to draw back its troops and armour from population centres on Tuesday ahead of a ceasefire on Thursday.

Activists said that instead of withdrawing, the Assad government was sending even more reinforcements into at least one other rebel stronghold, the besieged city of Rastan in central Homs province.

The Local Coordination Committees, one of the main opposition groups inside Syria, said “large military reinforcements” had arrived on Rastan’s eastern outskirts overnight.

The reports, which cannot be verified due to curbs on foreign media, came after one of the bloodiest days in Damascus’ crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests that has seen some people take up arms against the regime.

In Moscow, Muallem told reporters after meeting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that the government in Damascus had started implementing the Annan plan.

“I told my Russian colleague of the steps Syria is taking to show its goodwill for the implementation of the Annan plan. We have already withdrawn military units from different Syrian provinces,” said Muallem.

Lavrov, however, made it clear that Syria should be more decisive in fulfilling the plan of Annan, which most notably calls on Syria to pull out government forces and weaponry from cities hit by protests.

“We believe their actions could have been more active, more decisive when it comes to the implementation of the plan,” he told the joint news conference with Muallem.

Monday’s violence cost the lives of at least 105 people, including 74 civilians, the Observatory said, taking the monitoring group’s death toll for the past three days to close to 300.

The violence also spilled over into neighbouring countries.

Gunfire from Syria wounded four Syrians and two Turkish staff at a camp across the border in Turkey, and killed a television cameraman over the frontier with Lebanon.

Some 25,000 Syrian refugees are currently in camps in Turkey’s three provinces bordering Syria, after fleeing the crackdown on dissent.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Syria of a “clear violation” of common frontiers, while Lebanon demanded a probe into the cameraman’s shooting.

“It was a very clear violation of the border,” Erdogan told reporters on an official visit to Beijing. “Obviously we will take the necessary measures,” he was quoted as saying by the Turkish news agency Anatolia.

Washington rebuked Syria’s government for the border violence, and said Assad was showing no signs his government was sticking by the peace plan after signing up to the deal last week.

“We certainly have seen no sign yet of the Assad regime abiding by its commitments,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney.

Current UN chief Ban Ki-moon made a final plea for Assad to stop attacks on civilians after Monday’s fierce clashes.

“The secretary general reiterates his demand that the government of Syria immediately cease all military actions against civilians and fulfill all of its commitments made through joint special envoy Kofi Annan,” UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said.

The peace plan has been under a cloud for days since Damascus said it would keep its side of the bargain only if rebels gave written guarantees they would also stop fighting, a condition rejected out of hand by the rebels.

Amid the clashes, China urged Syria to honour its commitments and to implement the peace deal.

“China urges the Syrian government and parties concerned in Syria to seize the important opportunities, to honour their commitment of ceasefire and withdrawal of troops,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said.

On Sunday, Syria’s government laid out new conditions that put the truce in doubt, namely written guarantees from the rebels of a ceasefire and pledges from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey who oppose the Damascus regime that they would stop backing the rebels.

Following his visit to Turkey, Annan will travel to Syria’s ally Iran on Wednesday.

“I remind the Syrian government of the need for full implementation of its commitments and stress that the present escalation of violence is unacceptable,” Annan said at the weekend.

The United Nations says more than 9,000 people have been killed since anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011, while monitors put the number at more than 10,000.