Syria's Assad demands rebels halt attacks
Beirut • Syria's President Bashar Assad said Thursday he will spare no effort to make U.N. envoy Kofi Annan's peace plan a success, but demanded that armed opponents battling his regime commit to halting violence.
In brazen attacks, gunmen kidnapped a high-ranking military pilot outside the capital and assassinated two army colonels in the country's business hub, in what appeared to be part of a stepped-up campaign by the battered opposition against the symbols of Assad's power.
The violence Thursday underlined the Syrian government's predicament: Acceptance and implementation of the U.N. plan, which calls for a full cease-fire, risks spelling the end of an autocratic regime which has relied largely on brute force to stay in power over the past four decades.
Assad's condition of an express promise from the opposition to stop attacks could complicate Annan's attempts to bring an end to more than a year of violence that the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people.
The opposition has cautiously welcomed Annan's six-point plan, but it is also deeply skeptical Assad will carry it out, believing he has accepted it just to win time while his forces continue their bloody campaign to crush the uprising. Armed rebels are unlikely to stop fighting unless offensives by security forces halt. It is also difficult for rebel forces to uniformly stop fighting since there is no central command structure.
Last year, Assad agreed to an Arab-brokered peace plan similar to Annan's, pledging to work with observers who traveled to Syria on a mission to end the crackdown. But the regime failed to pull out its tanks from towns and cities, saying the country was under attack from the armed groups, and the bloodshed has escalated sharply since the League halted its observer mission on Jan. 28.
That failure tempered reaction to Assad's promises Thursday.
At an Arab League summit in the Iraqi capital, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby discussed the Syrian crisis and Annan's mission and they agreed "that it was imperative for president Assad to match his commitments with action," the U.N. spokesman's office said.
Arab leaders at the summit issued a resolution calling on Assad's regime to "immediately implement" Annan's proposals. The plan calls for Damascus to immediately stop troop movements and use of heavy weapons in populated areas and to commit to a daily two-hour halt in fighting to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations. It also calls for a full cease-fire to be supervised by the U.N. so that all parties can discuss a political solution.
In comments carried on Syria's state news agency, Assad said "Syria will spare no effort to make (Annan's) mission a success and hopes it would return security and stability to the country."
But he added that the U.N. envoy must "deal with the elements of the crisis in a comprehensive way" and get a commitment from armed groups to cease their "terrorist acts" against the government.
"To make Annan's mission a success, he should focus on drying up the sources that support terrorism against Syria," Assad added.
Throughout the crisis, Assad's regime has held that it faces not a popular uprising against his rule but a campaign of violence by terrorists.
The presence of the tanks along with security forces and snipers shooting to disperse protests has largely succeeding in preventing demonstrators from recreating the fervor of Egypt's Tahrir Square, where demonstrators occupied a central square and stayed there.
It is not clear how Assad can abide by Annan's plan without risking a similar situation or losing control over cities recently recovered from rebel control by the military.
Syria's uprising began a year ago with peaceful anti-Assad protests, which were met with a fierce crackdown by security forces. Since then, army defectors and protesters have taken up arms, initially to protect protesters. But as the bloodshed has risen, they have turned to seizing pro-opposition neighborhoods, towns and areas and launching attacks on government forces, usually raids on checkpoints or army convoys.
The new attacks Thursday were particularly bold.
In Aleppo, Syria's largest city, gunmen fatally shot two army colonels in the downtown Bab al-Hadid traffic circle in broad daylight. The state news agency SANA said the four attackers belonged to an "armed terrorist group." The officers, identified as Abdel-Karim al-Rai and Fuad Shaban, were on their way to work.
In eastern Ghouta, a suburb a few kilometers (miles) from Damascus, gunmen kidnapped pilot Mohammad Omar al-Dirbas, a brigadier, while on his way to work, SANA said. The agency did not say where the three worked or what their positions were.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Also Thursday, rebels ambushed an army truck and killed two soldiers in the central province of Hama, activists said. Fresh clashes also broke out between government troops and army defectors in the north and south.
Assad, in his comments Thursday, accused regional countries of funding and arming "terrorists" in Syria and cited the assassinations as proof that they did not want a peaceful settlement to the crisis.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least five civilians were killed in army raids on rebellious villages in Idlib province along Syria's northern border with Turkey. The activist group also reported clashes in the southern town of Dael.
"The security situation is very hard, with snipers on the roofs," said Adel al-Omari by telephone from the town. "It is very dangerous here, and you can't leave your house. Anyone who moves is targeted."
The Observatory said security forces killed at least 16 civilians across Syria on Thursday, while another group, the Local Coordination Committees, put the day's death toll at 31, including a child and two women.
Activist claims could not be independently verified. The Syrian government rarely comments on clashes and has barred most news media from working in the country.
Also Thursday, Britain said it was allocating 500,000 pounds (US$795,000) to supply non-lethal aid to Syria's opposition, pledging assistance to groups inside the country for the first time ahead of international talks this weekend on how best to support the nation's rebels.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the offer of new funds includes an "agreement in principle" to provide support to opposition members inside Syria. Until now, Britain has supplied assistance to exiles in the West and opponents of Assad's regime in Syria's neighboring countries, amid concern over the practicalities of delivering items into Syria and fears that equipment could end up in the hands of extremists.
Britain will back Syrian opposition
London • Britain allocated $795,000 Thursday to supply nonlethal aid to Syria's opposition, pledging assistance to groups inside the country for the first time ahead of international talks this weekend on how best to support the nation's rebels.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the offer of new funds includes an "agreement in principle" to provide support to opposition members inside Syria.
Until now, Britain has supplied assistance to exiles in the West and opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime in Syria's neighboring countries, amid concern over the practicalities of delivering items into Syria and fears that equipment could end up in the hands of extremists.