Syrian troops launched a fierce assault on a Damascus suburb on Thursday, days ahead of a deadline for a U.N.-brokered ceasefire, with activists describing it as one of the most violent attacks around the capital since the year-old uprising began.

Activists in the suburb of Douma said snipers on 20 buildings were firing at “anything that moved” and residents had endured eight hours of shelling. They said soldiers marched into a main square behind detainees used as human shields.

The operation in Douma, along with other offensives around the country, bolstered the opposition's claim that President Bashar Assad is only intensifying violence ahead of the April 10 deadline to start implementing the truce. Activists say Mr. Assad wants to make gains on the ground before the ceasefire is supposed to take effect.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he believes Mr. Assad “is deceiving us” when he promises to abide by the peace plan, which was brokered by the former U.N. chief, Kofi Annan.

There are other signs as well that the government has no intention of abiding by the deal.

Government stance

The pro-government daily Al Watan quoted an unnamed official saying the government is not bound by Tuesday's deadline for a ceasefire because that day marks “the beginning of army units' withdrawal and not the end. It is not a deadline by itself.”

In Geneva, Mr. Annan's spokesman Ahmad Fawzi said both sides were expected to end the hostilities within 48 hours of the April 10 deadline.

Mr. Fawzi added that Syria has told U.N. officials it is withdrawing troops from the southern province of Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib and the mountain resort town of Zabadani, north of Damascus.

But Mohammed Fares, an activist in Zabadani, denied claims that troops withdrew and said the army is still present in the town with checkpoints backed by tanks.

Other activists reported attacks on both Daraa and Idlib on Wednesday. Activist groups reported more than 50 dead nationwide on Wednesday.

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