Beirut: Syrian forces tightened security in public squares and outside mosques Friday as a fragile, UN-brokered truce faced its first major test with opposition leaders calling for widespread protests across the country.
President Bashar Assad`s regime has cracked down on such rallies in the past and suggested it would not allow them to resume on Friday, insisting protesters need to seek permission first. An outbreak of violence at a chaotic rally could give government forces a pretext for ending the truce, which formally took effect on Thursday.
The truce is at the centre of international envoy Kofi Annan`s six-point plan to stop the slide toward civil war and launch talks on a political transition. A 13-month uprising against Assad had become increasingly violent in response to his brutal crackdown, with an estimated 9,000 people killed.
Annan`s spokesman expressed cautious optimism that the plan has been "relatively respected" despite the continued presence of government troops and heavy weapons in population centres. Ahmad Fawzi said an advance team of UN observers was poised to enter Syria if the Security Council gives the green light later Friday. He said Syria also needs to approve the mission, which envisions a force of 250 observers on the ground.
Earlier on Friday, Syrian troops fought with rebels near the border with Turkey, and other scattered violence was reported. Still, the regime appeared to have halted its daily shelling attacks on opposition strongholds.
The truce, the first brokered by the international community since the Syria crisis erupted 13 months ago, calls for the Syrian government to allow peaceful protests, and opposition activists urged supporters to take to the streets after Friday prayers to test the regime`s compliance.
The Syrian government has broken promises in the past and so far ignored a key provision of Annan`s plan to pull troops back to barracks. Opposition leaders say Assad doesn`t want to ease the clampdown because that would unleash protesters to flood the streets and escalate the movement to bring down the president.
Mass protests were held during the early days of the uprising, but such demonstrations have become smaller and are dispersed quickly because of the violent crackdown and heavy presence of Syrian security forces.
Syrian National Council leader Burhan Ghalioun urged Syrians to step up peaceful demonstrations on Friday to "put the regime in front of its responsibilities — put the international community in front of its responsibilities”.
In a sign that the regime might not tolerate large demonstrations, the Interior Ministry warned in a statement carried by the state-run SANA news agency on Thursday that demonstrators would have to seek government permission for any marches — something that did not appear likely.
Maath al-Shami, a Damascus-based activist, said plainclothes security agents were deployed in the capital`s squares as well as Midan Corniche, a major thoroughfare, to prevent protesters from staging sit-ins there.
"Mukhabarat cars are everywhere," al-Shami said, referring to Syria`s feared intelligence agency.
If it allows mass protests, the regime risks ushering in weekslong sit-ins or losing control over territory that government forces recently recovered from rebels. So far, the military crackdown has prevented protesters from recreating the powerful displays of dissent that ushered in the Arab Spring and led to the successful ouster of autocratic leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Syria is largely sealed off from journalists and outside observers, and it would be difficult to determine the cause if violence erupted at a mass rally.
On the diplomatic front, Annan has urged the 15-nation UN Security Council to authorise an observer mission that would help keep the peace.
Fawzi, his spokesman, said an advance team was prepared to travel to Syria quickly to prepare for a full mission of up to 250 observers on the ground. He also quoted Annan as telling the council "that we need eyes on the ground, in light of the fragile calm that appears to be prevailing. We need eyes on the ground quickly to observe and monitor the situation."
On Friday, Syrian troops briefly clashed with opposition fighters on the outskirts of the northwestern village of Khirbet el-Joz that borders Turkey. The Army deployed tanks in the area before the clash, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists throughout Syria.
Turkey`s state-run Anadolu Agency said gunshots could be heard from the village of Uluyol in Hatay province, which is across the border from Khirbet el-Joz. The agency said at least four Syrian tanks were seen in the area.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Observatory, said the fighting lasted for about half an hour.
In the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold, activist Abu Mohammed Ibrahim reported that two mortar shells fell Friday in two neighbourhoods. Sporadic shooting at rebel-held areas in the city has continued after the cease-fire, he said, adding that the Army fired 10 tank shells at Homs on Thursday. Before the cease-fire went into effect, the city was subjected to three weeks of intense shelling.
The Syrian news agency, meanwhile, reported that gunmen killed a senior police officer in his home in the Damascus Jaramana on Thursday. The assailants knocked on Brigadier General Walid Jouni`s door and shot him dead when he opened, the agency said.
Still, there were no signs of the widespread shelling or rocket and mortar attacks by regime forces that were daily occurrences before the ceasefire went into effect.