World

Six die as violence mars Syria truce; protests muted

BEIRUT, April 14 — Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad shot dead five protesters after Friday prayers, activists reported, while the government said an army officer was killed as violence marred a ceasefire brokered by international peace envoy Kofi Annan.

At the United Nations, Russia criticised a US-drafted resolution authorising an advance team to monitor the fragile ceasefire that aims to end 13 months of bloodshed during the uprising against Assad, an ally of Moscow.

Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, presented his own draft, casting doubt on Western plans for the Security Council to vote on a resolution yesterday.

Syrians took to the streets across the country in small demonstrations, trusting that the two-day-old truce that is meant to lead to political dialogue would protect them from the army bullets that have frightened off peaceful protesters for months.

Activists said security forces came out in strength in many cities to prevent protesters mounting major rallies against Assad, even though the plan of UN-Arab League envoy Annan says the government should have pulled its troops back.

Protesters questioned Assad’s commitment to the peace plan that he has accepted. In the Qadam district of Damascus, they held up a placard saying: “Bashar may be able to laugh at the whole world — except for the Syrian people”.

Another read: “The new comedy is the ceasefire”.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the anti-Assad Local Coordination Committees said two people were killed as marchers tried to converge on a central square in the city of Hama.

Soldiers also shot one person dead as worshippers left a mosque in Nawa in the southern province of Deraa, where the uprising began in March 2011. Security forces killed a fourth in the town of Salqeen in the northwestern province of Idlib, opposition activists said, and a fifth died in Deraya, Damascus province.

However, Syria’s state news agency SANA blamed two of the deaths on the opposition, saying an “armed terrorist group” shot dead the man in Salqeen and attributing the death of one Hama protester to a shot fired by a fellow demonstrator.

SANA also said “terrorists” shot an army major dead as he drove to work. Armed groups were seeking to “destroy any effort to find a political solution to the crisis” in Syria, it said.

The United Nations estimates that Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people since the uprising began. Authorities blame the violence on foreign-backed militants who they say have killed more than 2,500 soldiers and police.

No mass rallies

Assad’s opponents had called for mass rallies yesterday to test whether the authorities would tolerate a return to peaceful protests, as Annan’s six-point plan said they should.

But rallies videoed by activists were far smaller than the huge, chanting crowds seen in major cities at the start of the uprising 13 months ago and on several occasions in 2011.

International pressure has grown for Syria to fulfil all its commitments to the former UN chief by withdrawing troops and heavy weapons, permitting humanitarian and media access, releasing prisoners and discussing a political transition.

At the Security Council, the US-drafted resolution called for an initial deployment of up to 30 unarmed UN observers.

But Russia’s Churkin came up with his own draft. “We have put together a shorter version of (the US) text,” he told reporters. “We had this understanding yesterday that it should be to the point, pragmatic, specific about putting in boots on the ground, (an) advance party of the monitoring team.”

It was not clear if the Council would be able to agree on a single text that could be voted yesterday. One council diplomat said he doubted the vote would come before today.

UN diplomats say Russia supports Annan’s peace efforts but is working hard to shield Damascus from what it fears is a Western push for Libyan-style “regime change” to dislodge Moscow from its only geo-strategic foothold in the Middle East.

Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions condemning Assad’s assault on anti-government protesters.

The competing drafts respond to Annan’s request that the Council move quickly to get the first members of an observer force that will ultimately number up to 250 on the ground.

Humanitarian corridors

So many Syrians have fled the violence that neighbouring Turkey has begun accepting international aid to help share the cost of the caring for the nearly 25,000 refugees, including rebel fighters, who have crossed the border.

Jordan is also housing almost 100,000 Syrian refugees, many more than the UN refugee agency UNHCR has registered, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Jordan told a joint news conference in Istanbul.

In Riyadh, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan discussed Syria with Saudi King Abdullah. Turkish officials said Erdogan had said the Annan plan “should not be allowed to become a means of buying time for the Damascus administration”.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Assad’s ceasefire declaration was insincere and renewed a call for the creation of aid passages, without saying how these could be protected.

“I firmly believe the international community should live up to its responsibilities and create the conditions for humanitarian corridors so that these poor people who are being massacred can escape a dictator,” he told TV channel i>tele.

Sarkozy said he discussed Syria and the observer plan with US President Barack Obama on Thursday.

Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi would not name countries that would contribute the observers, but said in Geneva many already had staff in the region who could move swiftly.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said a UN technical team that was in Damascus last week would return to the capital yesterday for more talks on a protocol under which the observer mission could be deployed.

Fawzi called for action on the other points of Annan’s plan, especially the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from populated areas, a condition that Syria was supposed to meet in the 48 hours leading up to the ceasefire deadline.

“We are worried about the operational deployment of heavy armour in population centres,” he said. “They didn’t belong there in the first place and they don’t belong there now.

“We are thankful that there’s no heavy shelling, that the number of casualties are dropping, that the number of refugees crossing the border are also dropping.”

Underlining the fragility of the truce, Fawzi confirmed there had been some clashes. “Sometimes in situations like this the parties test each other ... one shot, one bullet can plunge Syria back into the abyss,” he said. — Reuters

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