Syrian activists reported military attacks and arrest raids in towns across Syria on Tuesday and denied claims by the Foreign Minister that regime forces have begun pulling out of some areas in compliance with a U.N.-brokered truce.
French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero dismissed Syria’s claims of a withdrawal as “a new expression of this flagrant and unacceptable lie” and British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Damascus of using the ceasefire deadline “as a cover for intensified military efforts to crush Syria’s opposition.”
Even close ally Russia seemed critical of President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“We believe that their efforts to implement the plan could have been more active and resolute,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Activists said they have seen no signs of the large-scale troop pullback that Mr. Assad committed to under the ceasefire brokered by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. Military forces were supposed to withdraw from towns and villages on Tuesday with both sides ceasing all hostilities by 6 a.m. on Thursday.
The truce is widely seen as the last chance for diplomacy, and its collapse could push Syria even closer to an all-out civil war.
The opposition as well as the U.S. and its allies have been deeply sceptical that the regime would comply with the ceasefire because Mr. Assad has violated previous agreements and his forces escalated attacks on opposition strongholds in the weeks leading up to the deadline. At the same time, options for ending the fighting appear to be dwindling with the international community unwilling to intervene militarily.
Mr. Annan has not commented on the apparent breakdown of his plan, and his spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, would only say on Tuesday that it’s up to the U.N. Security Council to decide what to do next.
As claims and counterclaims about Syrian truce violations flew across the region on Tuesday, Mr. Annan toured a camp in Turkey, near the Syrian border where hundreds of Syrian refugees greeted him with chants of “Syria, Syria, Syria!”
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group, said there were no indications the Syrian regime was pulling back forces. Instead, the group and activists in Syria reported shelling attacks and raids in several locations in the north, centre and south of the country, it said.
“Soldiers are not being withdrawn from towns and villages,” said Fadi al-Yassin, an activist in the Idlib province close to Turkey. “On the contrary, reinforcements are being sent.”
In northern Idlib and central Hama province, troops backed by helicopters were firing heavy machine guns to try to flush out opposition fighters, Mr. al-Yassin said. Regime forces detained residents and set four homes on fire in Idlib’s Ariha village and a contingent of 50 army vehicles entered the town of Kfar Zeita in Hama province, he said.
The Observatory said troops also fired shells at the town of Mareh in northwestern Syria and at two neighbourhoods in the central city of Homs. Additional raids were reported in two southern village, the group said. Mohammed Saeed, a resident of the Damascus suburb of Douma, said tanks were patrolling the streets, as they have in recent days. Some tanks bore graffiti reading “Assad’s shield,” he said.
In Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem claimed the regime is complying with the truce deal.
“We have already withdrawn forces and army units from several Syrian provinces,” he said in a joint news conference with Mr. Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister.
There were signs that the regime was stalling for time when it made new, last-minute demands over the weekend, saying it could not withdraw troops from towns without written guarantees that the rebels would lay down their arms.
“It should be everyone’s working assumption that the Syrian regime will seek to draw out every step at every opportunity; it will assent and then object, repeatedly,” said Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
Mr. Moallem appeared to raise another new demand, saying that the ceasefire must start simultaneously with the deployment of the international observer mission. The deployment of observers was one of the terms of Annan’s plan.
And in another apparent shift, Mr. Moallem said Syria wants the truce guarantees to be issued by Mr. Annan, not by the opposition fighters.
“We did not ask for guarantees from armed terrorist groups that practice killing, take hostages and destroy infrastructure. We want guarantees from Annan,” he said in Moscow.
The Syrian opposition has said that while it is ready to go along with the Annan plan, it does not recognise the Assad regime and would not provide written guarantees.
‘1,000 killed in last eight days’
Meanwhile, Syria’s main opposition group said 1,000 people have been killed by government forces in the last eight days.
A spokeswoman for the Syrian National Council said that troops loyal to President Bashar Assad have intensified their onslaught in opposition areas despite saying it would accept a U.N. peace plan.
SNC spokeswoman Bassma Kodmani says 160 people were killed in Syria on Monday alone.
Ms. Kodmani told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday that regime forces have used heavy weapons including anti-aircraft guns against civilians in apparent defiance of an agreement to begin a ceasefire April 10.
She says the humanitarian situation on the ground is “dramatically deteriorating”.