Syria withdrawal deadline passes; violence continues


BEIRUT — A peace plan deadline for pulling back government forces in Syria came and went Tuesday as attacks across much of the country continued, leaving the international community with little besides condemnation for the country’s leadership.

But in a show of optimism that seemed to defy the bloody situation in Syria, United Nations and Arab League special envoy Kofi Annan held out hope that a cease-fire might still be reached by Thursday as planned and that negotiations could begin between the government of President Bashar Assad and the opposition seeking Assad’s ouster.

Speaking after a visit to a Turkish refugee camp, Annan, a former U.N. secretary-general, said it was “a bit too early” to say the six-point peace plan, which required the government to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from cities and towns by Tuesday, had failed. The plan called for Syria to stop military action to allow for a cease-fire beginning early Thursday.

“We still have time between now and the 12th to stop the violence. The plan is still on the table and it is a plan we are all fighting to implement,” Annan said. “If you want to take it off the table, what would you replace it with?”

Annan said regime forces had moved out of some areas and into others that had not previously been targets, suggesting that the offensive is widening.

In a news conference during a visit to Moscow, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said some army units had been withdrawn from provinces and that “a number of detainees who were arrested for vandalism were released.”

“Despite these positive steps, the armed terrorist groups escalated their operations, which spread into other governorates,” he said. Syrian officials frequently refer to the opposition as terrorist groups.

Activists reported at least 101 people killed across the country, including 56 in Homs, many of whom died during continued shelling. In the Deir Balba neighborhood of the city, a mass grave with 37 bodies, among them women, children and two entire families, was discovered. Elsewhere in the country, online videos showed tanks still in cities and helicopters flying overhead.

Echoing the sentiments of many activists and rebels, the Local Coordination Committees, an opposition network, said that from the beginning it had questioned the regime’s implementation of the peace plan.

Since Syria agreed to the plan April 1, the country has seen an escalation of government forces’ onslaught in much of the country, leaving hundreds dead and widespread destruction as tanks and helicopters continued to pound cities and towns.

The apparent unraveling of the plan suggests the conflict is far from over, with Assad’s regime still saying it is fighting armed terrorist groups and rebels unwilling to put down their weapons as a precondition for withdrawal.

The situation shed light on the plan’s lack of punitive measures and how dependent it is on the regime’s willingness to abide by it. China and Russia support Assad’s government, though that support seemed to waver somewhat Tuesday.

China urged the regime and opposition to maintain their commitment to the scheduled cease-fire, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a joint news conference with his Syrian counterpart, said the country’s actions “should have been more decisive.”

Amr Al-Azm, an opposition activist who is involved with the Syrian National Council, said the peace plan presented “potentially a very dangerous situation for us.”

The plan requires the opposition to make all its concessions before negotiating, while the regime was asked to make none, he said. There also was no mechanism to hold the regime accountable for its actions nor any consequence in the event that Syria failed to abide by the plan, he said.

Speaking after a U.N. Security Council meeting, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice said that in the event of the regime’s continued noncompliance, the international community would consider “the logical next step, which is to increase the pressure on the Assad regime through collective action.”

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the Assad government would be held accountable for its actions, including what he described as violating the sovereignty of Turkey and Lebanon in cross-border firing that killed at least three people Monday.

“There is no evidence so far that the Assad regime has any intention of adhering to any agreement it makes,” he said. “But if this process fails, Britain is ready to return to the U.N. Security Council to call again for a united international response to this clear threat to international peace and security.”

Hague said his government would begin the process of having the Security Council refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.

Marrouch is a special correspondent. A Times staff writer in Beirut contributed to this report.