Syria Accepts Envoy Peace Plan But Fighting Persists

Posted March 27th, 2012 at 6:40 pm (UTC-5)
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Syria's acceptance of a cease-fire drawn up by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan is being greeted with skepticism by Western diplomats and Syrian opposition figures as heavy fighting erupted between government soldiers and rebels near the Lebanese border.

Opposition members accuse Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of agreeing to the plan to stall for time as his troops make a renewed push to kill off areas of dissent. Louay Safi of the Syrian National Council said Tuesday the group has “no trust in the current regime” and “is not sure if it is political maneuvering or a sincere act.” She said no deal is possible until the killing of civilians stops.

The United States said it would judge Mr. Assad's sincerity in agreeing to the peace plan by what he does, not by what he says, given his record of “over-promising and under-delivering.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Mr. Assad's commitment must be matched by “immediate action.” She urged him to order government forces “to stop firing and begin withdrawing from populated areas.''

But several U.S. senators told VOA the Syrian leader must step down, a move not mandated by Mr. Annan's peace plan. Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson said he “does not know of any solution that makes sense with Mr. Assad in place.” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said the international community should tell the Syrian leader, “You are going to go. You have got to go,” adding that “negotiations with a barbaric regime are going nowhere.”

The diplomatic moves came as pro-Assad forces pursued rebels who have taken refuge across the Lebanese border. There were conflicting reports about whether Syrian troops physically crossed the frontier into Lebanon during heavy fighting near a rural area around the Lebanese village of Qaa. Lebanese military sources denied Syrian troops or vehicles had entered their territory.

Opposition activists reported at least 10 people killed across Syria Tuesday as troops fired at civilians and battled rebels in several parts of the country – including the northwestern province of Idlib, the Damascus suburbs and the central city of Homs.

The United Nations said the number of people killed in Syria's bloody crackdown has risen to more than 9,000, an increase of about 1,000 over the world body's previous estimate.

In remarks to the U.N. Security Council, Middle East envoy Robert Serry said violence in Syria continues “unabated” and preventing a further escalation of the conflict is “urgent.” Damascus blames the revolt on what it says are foreign-backed terrorists.

Mr. Annan said Tuesday that he received a letter from Syria declaring its approval of the plan, which calls on government and rebel forces to begin a cease-fire and a dialogue. The U.N.-Arab League joint envoy was in Beijing, where he met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to build international support for the Syria peace initiative. Mr. Wen said China backs Annan's mediation efforts.

Syrian state television showed Mr. Assad touring the former rebel stronghold of Baba Amr in Homs, the scene of a weeks-long siege by government forces. He was seen walking past ruined buildings and discussing reconstruction efforts in the district, where hundreds of people were killed – many of them civilians.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said predictions that the Syrian president's resignation would end the Syrian conflict are “very short-sighted.” He said decisions on Syria's future should be made by the Syrian people rather than the leaders of other nations.

Also Tuesday, several hundred Syrian opposition figures met in Istanbul in an attempt to unify their ranks and win greater recognition from Western and Arab nations in an anti-Assad coalition calling itself the “Friends of Syria.” Istanbul is due to host a conference of those nations on Sunday.

Syrian National Council members drafted a declaration calling for a post-Assad Syria to be a “civic and democratic state.” But veteran Syrian dissident Haitham al Maleh withdrew from the Istanbul meeting, accusing the SNC of ignoring differing opposition voices.