Fighting near Damascus ahead of truce

2012-04-05 11:32

Damascus - Fierce clashes between Syrian forces and rebels erupted near Damascus on Thursday, monitors said, as Washington slammed an "intensification" of violence against regime opponents ahead of an agreed truce.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime troops backed by tanks stormed Douma, located about 13km northeast of the capital, at dawn amid heavy gunfire and shelling.

The Britain-based group said clashes between soldiers and rebel forces were reported in various parts of the town.

Plumes of smoke could be seen rising near Douma's main mosque as troop reinforcements were sent in, the Observatory said.

Violence across the country has left at least 170 people dead so far this week despite a pledge by President Bashar al-Assad to implement by April 10 a six-point peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

The surge in violence has sent Syrians fleeing, with an official in Ankara saying on Thursday that more than 1 000 people had crossed the border in the past 24 hours, bringing to nearly 21 000 the number of Syrian refugees now in Turkey.

"A total of 1 043 Syrians made their way to Turkey in a single day, marking the highest figure in recent times," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Intensification of artillery bombardments

Former UN chief Annan said on Monday that Assad had agreed to start "immediately" pulling out troops as per the terms of the peace plan.

But US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that "we've yet to be convinced that they [Syria's authorities] have any intention of complying with the 10 April deadline".

"What we've seen, frankly, is an intensification of artillery bombardments in major population centres like Homs and Idlib," Toner added.

Annan is to address the UN General Assembly on Thursday about the crackdown.

General Assembly President Nassir Abdulaziz al-Nasser convened an informal meeting for 10:00 for Annan to provide via video conference an update on the situation and the "progress of his mission."

The Observatory has charged that the army is torching and looting rebel houses across the country in a campaign that could amount to crimes against humanity.

The Syrian National Council, the main opposition bloc, accused the regime of carrying out "a policy of genocide against the Syrian people" and called for immediate pressure from the international community for a pullback of tanks.

With international concern growing, a draft UN Security Council statement was drawn up asking Syria to respect the April 10 deadline, according to a copy seen by AFP.

The draft also urges the Syrian opposition to cease hostilities within 48 hours after Assad's regime makes good on its pledges.

It calls on all parties to respect a two-hour daily humanitarian pause, as called for in Annan's plan.

Humanitarian concerns

Negotiations on the text - distributed by Britain, France and the United States - began on Tuesday.

Russia, Assad's veto-wielding ally in the council, has rejected the idea of a deadline, with Lavrov saying "ultimatums and artificial deadlines rarely help matters".

Seeking to assuage humanitarian concerns, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem pledged Damascus would do its utmost to ensure the success of a Red Cross mission, at a meeting on Tuesday with visiting ICRC chief Jakob Kellenberger.

Kellenberger, who is pushing for a daily ceasefire, travelled on Wednesday to Daraa to assess the humanitarian needs there, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

Two lorries filled with food aid and hygiene kits, as well as 500 blankets, were unloaded at Red Cross depots in Daraa ready for distribution, ICRC spokesperson in Damascus Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP.

The brutal crackdown on a popular uprising against Assad's regime has left more than 9 000 people dead since mid-March last year, according to UN figures.