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Annan tells UN Syria accepts cease-fire plan

Troop attacks continue; at least 24 reported killed

Associated Press

Chanting demonstrators staged a protest Monday night against President Bashar Assad in a neighborhood of Damascus.

NEW YORK — Syria’s government has promised that its armed forces would withdraw from population centers by April 10 and stop shooting within 48 hours after that date if rebels also stop, the special emissary attempting to end the year-old uprising told the UN Security Council on Monday.

The emissary, Kofi Annan, also told the Security Council that his team had held constructive talks with antigovernment forces as part of an attempt to gain their adherence to his cease-fire plan. It has been widely expected that rebels would wait for the government’s forces to stop shooting before they would agree to reciprocate.

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While the latest diplomatic scrambling provided a specific date for when the violence could abate, it was unclear whether that represented a meaningful breakthrough to halt the conflict.

Even as Annan was reporting progress, there was widespread skepticism over it. The Syrian government sent troops backed by tanks into rebellious areas Monday, including the towns of Dael and Haas, hunting down activists and torching or bulldozing homes, the Associated Press reported, citing opposition groups.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 24 people were killed nationwide Monday, including civilians. The fighting has left more than 9,000 people dead since President Bashar Assad moved to crush political opposition inspired by the Arab Spring movement in March 2011.

Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said Monday that Syria’s government must take the first step toward settling the conflict by pulling troops from city streets. Lavrov, who spoke during a visit to Armenia, added that the country’s opposition forces should reciprocate quickly.

Annan’s cease-fire proposal received a large credibility boost last month when it was unanimously endorsed by the Security Council, including Russia and China, longtime defenders of Assad who had thwarted previous efforts by the council to stop the bloodshed in Syria.

The current plan by Annan calls for a UN-supervised cease-fire by all parties, withdrawal of soldiers and heavy weapons from cities, delivery of humanitarian aid, release of arbitrarily detained people, freedom of movement for journalists, and the right to peacefully demonstrate and assemble.

The Syrian government’s commitment came a day after a large conference of nations, including many Arab nations, Turkey, and the United States, moved closer to a direct intervention in the conflict, partly on concern that Annan’s diplomacy would be ineffective.

Participants in the “Friends of Syria’’ conference agreed to provide equipment and money to the array of rebel forces known as the Free Syrian Army seeking to end Assad’s grip on power.

The conference in Istanbul, which was also attended by representatives of the Syrian National Council, a loose affiliation of anti-Assad exiles, was assailed by Assad’s government as an “enemies of Syria’’ plot, intended to undermine Annan’s effort, and as the equivalent of an act of war on Syria.

Annan, the former secretary-general appointed by the United Nations and Arab League to seek a negotiated end to the uprising in Syria, spoke to the Security Council privately over a video connection from Geneva. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, who is the president of the Security Council, briefed reporters afterward on Annan’s discussions. Ahmad Fawzi, Annan’s spokesman, also provided some detail via e-mail.

Rice said Annan had urged the Syrian government to immediately begin implementing his plan — as it had previously agreed to do — and that the Syrian government had pledged to adhere to the troop pullback provision of Annan’s plan by April 10. Fawzi said the cease-fire would go into effect within 48 hours of the completion of that pullback.

Speaking as the representative of the United States, Rice expressed wariness that the Syrian government would honor such a pledge.

“We have seen promises made and promises broken,’’ she said. “We have seen commitments to end violence followed by massive intensification of violence. The proof is in the actions, not the words.’’

She also said a UN peacekeeping arm would begin planning for how to monitor a cease-fire in Syria, even though many necessary elements of such a monitoring - most notably the Syrian government’s agreement - had not been resolved.

Speaking to reporters later, Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, said Syria was committed to Annan’s plan and that “all the details will be part of the final commitment of everybody, not only the Syrian government.’’

Asked about the “Friends of Syria’’ meeting Sunday, Jaafari spoke harshly - particularly toward Turkey, once one of Assad’s strongest supporters. Turkey is now calling Assad’s government illegitimate, is hosting armed anti-Assad groups and is providing a haven for thousands of Syrian refugees.

“The so-called conference of the enemies of Syria is in itself a violation and contradiction of Kofi Annan’s mission,’’ Jaafari said.

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