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As cease-fire deadline nears, Syria pounds rebellious city

AFP/Getty Images

An image taken from a YouTube video is said to show Syrian troops beating a student at Halab University in Aleppo.

BEIRUT - Syrian artillery pounded the rebellious city of Homs and tanks and troops stormed towns in the north and south on Wednesday, deepening doubts that President Bashar Assad will follow through on his commitment to a truce starting next week.

Antiregime activists cited the new assaults as evidence Assad is trying to crush those seeking to overthrow his regime before the cease-fire brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan begins on April 10. Activist groups reported more than 50 people dead nationwide for the day.

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Russia, a key Assad ally, warned other nations not to arm the opposition, predicting that would only increase bloodshed without ending Assad’s rule. The international community is sharply divided over how to stop the violence that has left more than 9,000 people dead over the past year.

This week, Assad agreed to implement the cease-fire beginning April 10. The truce is the keystone of a six-point plan put forward by Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy. It requires regime forces to withdraw from towns and cities, followed by a withdrawal by rebel fighters. Then all sides are supposed to hold talks on a political solution.

A Syrian government official said Tuesday that troops had begun withdrawing from some calm cities while moving to the outskirts of tense areas. He gave no further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

But activists reached by phone Wednesday in north, south, and central Syria said they had seen no sign that the military was pulling out. Some reported the opposite.

“They are still sending in reinforcements,’’ said Yazeed al-Baradan in the southern town of Tafas. He said government tanks and armored cars pushed in early in the day, beefed up checkpoints around the city, and torched the homes of more than a dozen known regime opponents.

Another activist in the northern province of Idlib gave a similar report.

“We don’t see any proof of withdrawals here,’’ said Fadi al-Yassin. “Anyone who gives a promise to the UN that he will withdraw his troops has to show good intentions, but we know Assad has no good intentions.’’

The opposition suspects Assad agreed to the truce plan just to buy more time to continue his military crackdown on the revolt.

Syria’s uprising began in March 2011 when protesters inspired by other Arab Spring revolts took to the streets to call for political reform. The regime has tried to squash spreading dissent, and many in the opposition have since taken up arms to protect themselves and attack government troops.

But the ragtag local rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army are outgunned by Assad’s large, professional forces, and the failure of diplomacy to stop the violence has left many calling for arms.

“We have only one demand and that is the arming of the Free Army,’’ said Baradan. “Then, God willing, we will topple the regime ourselves.’’

A group of some 70 nations pledged this week to supply the opposition with aid and communications equipment, while Saudi Arabia and some of its Persian Gulf Arab neighbors have started a fund to support rebel fighters. Much about the fund remains unclear, and any weapons reaching the rebels from outside Syria have yet to make a noticeable difference on the ground.

Russia warned that if other countries armed the opposition, the added weaponry would exacerbate the conflict.

“Even if they arm the Syrian opposition to the teeth, it won’t be able to defeat the Syrian army,’’ Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia, said. “The carnage will go on for many years.’’

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