Syria ceasefire comes into effect
Beirut - The deadline for a UN-backed ceasefire aimed at halting more than a year of bloodshed in Syria passed on Thursday with no immediate reports of violence.
People in the restive provinces of Homs, Hama and Idlib which have seen sustained shelling by President Bashar Assad's forces over the last week, said the situation was calm after the 06:00 (03:00 GMT) deadline expired.
An activist in Damascus said the capital was also quiet.
"It was a bloody night - there was heavy shelling on the city of Homs, but now it is calm and there is no shooting," said an activist in Syria's third largest city, who called himself Abu Rami.
But, like activists in other cities, he said there was no indication that Syrian army forces were withdrawing from Homs in accordance with the ceasefire agreement. "There are no signs of a pullback - the tanks, snipers and armed forces are still visible across the city," he said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, reported explosions in Zabadani, a town close to the border with Lebanon, shortly after the deadline. But a resident contacted by Reuters said the town was quiet.
Syria's defence ministry said on Wednesday it would halt operations on Thursday morning but made no mention of an army pullback from cities and said it would confront "any assault" by armed groups. Attacks on opposition neighbourhoods over the last week have fuelled doubts it would comply with the truce.
A spokesperson for international envoy Kofi Annan, who brokered the ceasefire, said on Wednesday night an advance planning team negotiating how UN observers would monitor the accord had left Damascus after a week of talks.
He had no further comment on any progress reached by the team led by Norwegian Major General Robert Mood, so it was not clear whether the deployment had been agreed or called off.
Annan is due to brief the UN Security Council on developments in Syria at 14:00 GMT.
Insurgents, who lack a clearly co-ordinated command structure, said they would stop shooting if Assad's forces withdrew and observed the truce.
"The defence ministry announcement is a detour on Annan's plan which clearly says he should pull back the tanks and end violence. We will wait until tomorrow and see. We will not act before tomorrow," Qassem Saad al-Deen, Free Syrian Army spokesman inside Syria, told Reuters on Wednesday.
At least 12 people were killed on Wednesday, activists said.
Truce pledges scorned
Western powers have scorned Assad's truce pledges, but so far lack an effective policy to curb the bloodshed, given their own aversion to military intervention and the resistance of Russia and China to any UN Security Council action.
Quoting from a letter to Annan from the Syrian foreign ministry, Annan's spokesperson Ahmad Fawzi said the government had undertaken "to cease all military fighting throughout Syrian territory as of 06:00 (03:00 GMT) tomorrow, Thursday, 12 April, 2012, while reserving the right to respond proportionately to any attacks carried out by armed terrorist groups against civilians, government forces or public and private property".
He also stressed that troops should pull back.
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations, Bashar Ja'afari, said in an interview on PBS that his government was "on board" with the peace plan.
But he said government forces would remain on alert to "counterattacks" and that "legally speaking, there is a big difference between declaring a ceasefire and putting an end to the violence".
Activist videos posted on YouTube on Wednesday showed a shopping mall engulfed in flames after it was hit in bombardment of the Juret al-Shayah district of Homs and bombs crashing into the city's Khalidiya district. The videos could not be verified and the Syrian government bars most independent media.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said three people were killed in Homs and shelling killed a man, woman and child in Qusair near the border with Lebanon. Three people were killed near Damascus, the group said.
"Fighting is still raging as we speak, reflecting what has been an intensification of the violence that the Syrian government has pursued since April 1 when it committed to cease all hostile actions by yesterday," US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said in New York on Wednesday afternoon.
"Its commitments, therefore, have little if any credibility given that track record," she told reporters.