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Syrian official takes hard line on troop withdrawal

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government will not pull troops from cities and towns engulfed by the country’s unrest before life returns to normal in these areas, a high-ranking official said, as activists reported fresh violence that claimed the lives of more than two dozen people across the nation Saturday.

The statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdessi was the first response to an appeal by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to Syrian authorities to stop military activities as ‘‘the stronger party’’ in a ‘‘gesture of good faith’’ to the lightly armed opposition.

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It suggests that any implementation of Annan’s plan to end the conflict — which Syrian President Bashar Assad has accepted — will be a long and complicated process. Damascus appears to be playing for time by indicating broad agreement with the plan but then quibbling over or ignoring the details.

One of the centerpieces of the plan is the withdrawal of Syrian troops from cities, but Makdessi told state TV late Friday that the military is only in populated areas ‘‘in a state of self defense and protecting civilians.’’

‘‘The Syrian army is not happy to be present in residential areas,’’ Makdessi said . ‘‘Once peace and security prevail in these areas, the army will not stay nor wait for Kofi Annan to leave. This is a Syrian matter.’’

Makdessi also said it has defeated those seeking to topple the Syrian regime.

‘‘The battle to bring down the state in Syria has already ended and the battle of reinforcing stability has started,’’ he said, an apparent reference to recent gains by Syrian troops in their crackdown on the rebels.

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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, discussed with Saudi officials ways to pressure Assad to end the bloodshed.

‘‘I believe we all agree on the need for an immediate cease-fire to the systematic killing,’’ Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said at a joint news conference with Clinton.

He said arming the Syrian opposition is a ‘‘duty’’ so that it can defend itself against Assad’s onslaught.

Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spoken about possible military intervention, from arming Syria’s badly overmatched rebels to creating safe zones from which the rebels can operate.

Washington remains opposed to arming Syria’s rebels, fearing a military escalation could lead to all-out civil war and play into Assad’s hands, considering his vastly more powerful military.

Syria’s uprising began a year ago with peaceful protests against Assad’s regime. In the face of a fierce crackdown, the uprising has become increasingly militarized and opposition groups now say their only hope is to drive out Assad.

The UN estimates more than 9,000 people have been killed in the fighting.

International opponents of Assad are struggling to pin down a strategy on Syria, as the peace plan put forward by Annan is failing to get off the ground.

Annan’s six-point proposal to end the violence, which has been accepted by Assad, requires the government to immediately pull troops and heavy weapons out of cities and towns, and abide by a two-hour halt in fighting everyday to allow humanitarian access and medical evacuations.

‘‘The government must stop first and then discuss a cessation of hostilities with the other side,’’ Annan spokesman Ahmad Fawzi told reporters in Geneva on Friday. ‘‘We are appealing to the stronger party to make a gesture of good faith ... The deadline is now.’’

Assad promised on Thursday to ‘‘spare no effort’’ to make sure Annan’s plan succeeds. But he demanded that armed forces battling his regime commit to halting violence as well.

Many Syrians are frustrated at the lack of will for a foreign military intervention and are deeply skeptical Assad will carry out Annan’s peace plan, saying the president has accepted it just to win time while his forces continue their bloody campaign to crush the uprising.

Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said Syrian troops foiled an infiltration attempt by gunmen from Lebanon into a village near the western town of Talkalakh. SANA said troops confiscated weapons and killed and wounded some of the infiltrators as others fled back into Lebanon.

In other violence, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops killed at least 25 people Saturday, mostly in the southern province of Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib and the central region of Homs.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, said security forces killed 24 people Saturday nine of them in Idlib and eight in Homs.

The Observatory reported shooting at a funeral in the posh Damascus neighborhood of Kfar Souseh of a man who was shot dead Friday by security forces. It had no word on casualties.

For the US and its allies, Syria is proving an especially murky conflict with no easy solutions. Assad’s regime is one of Washington’s clearest foes, a government that has long been closely allied with Iran and anti-Israel groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which the US considers terrorist. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Gulf countries are eager to see Assad’s fall in hopes of breaking Syria out of its alliance with their regional rival, Shiite-majority Iran.

Clinton was flying on Saturday from Saudi Arabia to Turkey for Sunday’s 60-nation gathering of the ‘‘Friends of the Syrian People’’ in Istanbul.

She said officials meeting in Turkey would discuss ‘‘additional steps to increase pressure on the regime, provide humanitarian assistance despite the efforts of the regime to block access and advance plans for an inclusive, democratic and orderly transition that addresses the aspirations of the Syrian people.’’

Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.

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