Violence in Syria continues as deadline draws near

The United States has warned Syria it won’t be able to deceive the world about compliance with a cease-fire that is just days away, as regime forces pound more opposition strongholds in an apparent rush to crush resistance before troops must withdraw.

Activists say more than 100 people were killed, including at least 87 civilians.

Almost half died in a Syrian army raid on the central village of al-Latamneh on Saturday, activists said. Amateur video from the village showed the body of a baby with bloodied clothes and an apparent bullet wound in the chest. On another video, a barrage of shells is heard hitting a neighbourhood of Homs as the restive city’s skyline is engulfed in white smoke.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad last week accepted a cease-fire agreement brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan calling for government forces to withdraw from towns and villages by Tuesday, and for the regime and rebels to lay down their arms by 6am Thursday. The truce is meant to pave the way for negotiations between the government and the opposition over Syria’s political future.

However, Western leaders are skeptical about Assad’s intentions because of broken promises of the past and the recent escalation in attacks on opposition strongholds, including arrest sweeps and shelling of civilian areas. The US ambassador to Syria posted online satellite images late on Friday that he said cast doubt on the regime’s readiness to pull out.

“This is not the reduction in offensive Syrian government security operations that all agree must be the first step for the Annan initiative to succeed,” Ambassador Robert Ford wrote on the embassy’s Facebook page.

Shifted around troops
Ford posted photos he said show the government has pulled back some forces, but kept others in place or simply shifted around troops and armoured vehicles. Earlier this week, the government claimed it had withdrawn from several areas.

“The regime and the Syrian people should know that we are watching,” Ford wrote, citing satellite surveillance. “The regime cannot hide the truth.”

The ambassador, who left Syria in February amid security concerns, said the Syrian government must give UN monitors access to confirm its compliance with the cease-fire. An UN advance team arrived in Damascus earlier this week; Annan’s spokesperson has said the UN-Arab league envoy hopes to put together a team of 200 to 250 observers.

Syria says the details of the mission have not been worked out.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, expressed alarm about escalating violence, saying Tuesday’s deadline for a troop pullback “is not an excuse for continued killing”. On Friday, he urged the regime to cease all military action immediately and unconditionally.

In Saudi Arabia, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation said on Saturday that it believes some one million of Syria’s 23-million residents need humanitarian assistance. The OIC, which considers itself the voice of the Islamic world with 57 Muslim majority member states, said it would provide $70-million in aid, including food and medical supplies. It has already sent nine trucks with relief to the areas most in need.

The group sent representatives to Syria, a member country, in late March and said it was willing to work closely with authorities there.

The international community has been deadlocked over how to end the violence in Syria. Assad allies Russia and China blocked resolutions condemning Syria. The West, in turn, opposes military intervention or arming the opposition fighters. Russia, increasingly critical of the Syrian regime, supports Annan’s plan, but it’s not clear if that’s enough to make a truce stick.

Street protests against Assad erupted 13 months ago, inspired by the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy uprisings in the region, but eventually turned violent under a brutal regime crackdown. More than 9 000 people have been killed since then, the UN says.

Ill-equipped, poorly funded civilians-turned-fighters and army defectors have been no match for the regime, backed by a loyal army. On Friday, in a typical street battle, fighters in ski masks took cover behind walls and tried to spot army snipers in a Damascus suburb.

The capital itself has been relatively calm, and on Saturday, thousands attended a rally marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of Syria’s ruling Baath party. A large poster of Assad hung from a facade facing a city square and supporters waved Syrian flags.

Saturday’s deadliest fighting was reported in al-Latamneh in the central Hama province. Regime troops stormed the village after shelling it, killing at least 40 people, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Amateur video posted by activists showed al-Latamneh residents crying “Allahu Akbar” as they held up the body of the dead baby. Another video showed the bodies of several men covered in white sheets lined up on the ground.

In the nearby province of Homs, activists reported shelling of the city as well as the rebel-held areas of Rastan, Deir Baalabeh and Qusair.

In all, at least 87 civilians and 16 opposition fighters were killed on Saturday, the group said, while 13 unidentified bodies were found in the Deir Baalabeh neighborhood of Homs and 10 in Hreitan, in the northern province of Idlib. The Observatory said two dozen Syrian troops were also killed.

The grassroots Local Coordination Committees put the day’s death toll on the opposition side at 121, including 59 in the Hama area.

The Syrian government restricts access of foreign journalists, and the activists’ accounts could not be independently verified.

Syrian officials said troops arrested large numbers of gunmen and killed “some others” in the Damascus suburbs and in the center of the country. The government said it seized large amounts of weapons and ammunition Saturday. The regime claims the revolt is a foreign-led conspiracy, rejecting its portrayal as a popular uprising. — Sapa-AP


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