Syrian troops on offensive on deadline day

Syrian troops shelled villages, fired across frontiers and were accused of massacres in the hours before a deadline on Tuesday that many doubt can usher in a UN-brokered ceasefire.

Beirut: Syrian troops shelled villages, fired across frontiers and were accused of massacres in the hours before a deadline on Tuesday that many doubt can usher in a UN-brokered ceasefire and halt a 13-month slide into all-out civil war.

Diplomats trying to contain a crisis that has inflamed the Middle East and pitched old Cold War rivals into opposing camps will not wish to abandon their most comprehensive peace plan yet. The plan`s author, international envoy Kofi Annan, visits Turkey and Iran on Tuesday, while Russia hosts the Syrian foreign minister.

In Damascus, President Bashar al-Assad said nothing on Monday about whether he would honor his undertaking to Annan to start withdrawing government forces from urban areas on April 10 - a deadline that diplomats say appears to give him until midnight Syrian time, or 2100 GMT, on Tuesday to comply.

Assad`s demand on Sunday for written guarantees of good faith from the rebels - which their leaders rejected out of hand - as well as the hostile actions of Syrian troops on the ground, fueled doubts that Annan`s schedule for the full truce to start by 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) on Thursday, April 12, would be respected.

Syria was to have started pulling troops out of towns and cities by Tuesday to pave the way for a ceasefire to start 48 hours later.

"April 10 has become void," concluded Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru. Ankara, Assad`s former ally and now a foe, deplored shooting that wounded five people in a refugee camp inside Turkey - in the border area which Annan, the former U.N. secretary-general, is expected to visit on Tuesday.

Another neighbor, Lebanon, condemned the killing of a local journalist by Syrian soldiers firing over the border.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "These incidents are just another indication that the Assad regime does not seem at all willing to meet the commitments that it made to Kofi Annan."

She derided Assad`s new condition for a truce as "chaff" to "stall for time" and said there was "no indication" of his forces preparing to withdraw.
Opposition activists in Idlib province, near the Turkish border, accused troops of mounting an offensive that had killed dozens this week, including young men rounded up and executed. Other anti-Assad groups said the army shelled a village near the central city of Hama, killing 30 people, including women and children.

"The world gave Assad a deadline," said activist Mohammad Abdallah. "But he sees it as an opportunity."

The United Nations says Syrian forces have killed 9,000 people in 13 months, while Assad`s government says rebels have killed more than 3,000 soldiers and security personnel.

Government curbs on the media limit independent reporting from inside Syria.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was "alarmed by the reports of continued violence and human rights violations in Syria, which resulted in an increased flow of refugees into neighboring countries," his office said on Monday. "The timeline for the complete cessation of violence endorsed by the Security Council must be respected by all without condition."

Failure to end the violence would turn attention back to the diplomatic stalemate that has left Western and Arab powers on the one hand and Assad`s friends in Russia, China and Iran on the other all calling for calm. But they are sharply at odds over how that might be achieved and how Syria would be governed from then on.


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